Overview of Pain Research Reading 2024

Recently, we hosted an industrially-focused event at the University of Reading, providing an overview of our multi-faceted pain research programme to a number of delegates across academia, clinical care and research, and with a large presence of industrial partners. Our very own Tatum Askey was kind enough to provide her insights, and write a summary of the day, alongside her views (which in almost all cases, mirrored my own). Despite the challenges of acquiring funding to host these meetings, we are very proud of our ability to keep momentum in our bid to disseminate our work and widen our participation across our scientific and local community. This is our 4th annual conference, and was our best attended, with over 110 delegates in attendance. We look forward to hosting our next conference in the summer of 2025, but for the meantime, I’d like to provide Tatum’s excellent summary below for your perusal

Redefining Chronic Pain Research: Insights from the Pain Research and Therapeutics Conference by Tatum Askey

The recent conference at the University of Reading, organized by Pain Research Reading and OBN, brought together an interdisciplinary community of academics, pharmaceutical industry professionals, and healthcare providers. Focused on chronic pain research and drug development, the event explored the latest advancements, ongoing challenges, and the necessity of interdisciplinary collaboration in the field.

Understanding the Multifaceted Nature of Pain

A key theme of the conference was the multifaceted nature of pain. Chronic pain is no longer  seen solely as a physical phenomenon (known as the Cartesian model of pain); psychological and social components play a crucial role. Dr Richard Harrison, co-lead of the CINN Pain Lab, opened the conference by emphasizing the limitations of traditional biomedical approaches. Diagnostic methods like MRIs often fail to reveal the complexities of chronic pain, underscoring the need for a holistic approach. Harris pointed out that 30-50% of UK adults suffer from chronic pain, with 70% of these patients experiencing related mental health conditions. This dual burden underscores the necessity of considering both physical and psychological factors in diagnosis and treatment.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Bridging Gaps

Interdisciplinary collaboration was also a central theme, with speakers from various specialties including neuroscience, immunology, psychology, and more. The integration of these fields is essential in advancing chronic pain research. For instance, Dr. Wiebke Gandhi’s research at the University of Reading explores how pain affects the reward system, demonstrating that chronic pain patients often have impaired reward processing and motivation. This psychological insight is crucial for developing more effective treatments. Gandhi emphasised that when patients feel in control of their pain, the levels of perceived pain and the likelihood of developing co-morbid depression is reduced.

The role of psychological factors in pain perception was emphasized across several presentations. The idea that “pain is in the brain” was a recurring theme, with evidence showing that our perception of pain can change based on psychological and emotional states. This underscores the importance of a holistic, whole-body approach to pain management.

Alongside the focus on psychological factors, Dr Aadil El-Turabi, a vaccinologist at the University of Oxford presented his data on the potential for virus-like particles in the treatment of conditions such as osteoarthritis, presenting a safer and more effective treatment method. Professor Fiona Boissonade from the University of Sheffield highlighted the potential for immune targets in chronic pain treatment, using mouse models of trigeminal nerve injury to show the effect of IL10 on nerve re-growth. These talks, both addressing the use of the immune system in developing novel targets and delivery methods for drugs, further highlights the importance in an interdisciplinary approach to pain research.

Innovations and Challenges in Drug Development

The conference showcased both the progress and challenges in developing new pain treatments. Non-opioid treatments were a major focus, reflecting the urgent need for alternatives to addictive medications. Alasdair Naylor of Sevenless Therapeutics presented the story of their work developing a SOS1 inhibitor targeting the NGF pathway. These innovations aim to provide effective pain relief while minimizing side effects and addiction risks.

Despite these advances, the challenge of translating research from animal models to human clinical trials remains significant. Many drugs show promise in preclinical stages but fail to deliver in human trials. Dr. Richard Harrison’s presentation emphasized the need for better predictive models and the inclusion of human tissue and patient involvement in research. By directly involving patients in the design of clinical trials and understanding their lived experiences, researchers can develop more translatable and effective treatments. Dr Maria Maiarú, co-founder of Pain Research Reading, showed how her lab at the University of Reading is utilising a wide range of behavioural tests, specifically designed to model the human experience of pain, to fully assess the effects of potential new treatments in mouse models of chronic pain. This, alongside Dr Maiarú’ plans to test compounds in canine models which naturally develop osteoarthritis, will help to bridge the gap between pre-clinical models of pain, and use in the clinic.

The Role of Lifestyle and Perception in Pain Management

Dr. Deepak Ravindran’s discussion on the importance of lifestyle changes and the placebo effect provided a thought-provoking perspective on pain management. He pointed out that surgery often does not work for chronic pain and that lifestyle factors, such as physical activity and mental health, play a critical role in managing pain. Ravindran advocated for the integration of the six pillars of lifestyle medicine into pain treatment, aligning with the UK health system’s shift towards a more holistic model.

The placebo effect, wherein patients experience real pain relief from treatments they believe will help, underscores the power of the mind in pain perception. This highlights the potential of non-pharmacological interventions.

Patient-Centered Research and Personalized Medicine

A major takeaway from the conference was the importance of patient-centered research. Dr Amelia Hollywood, Associate Professor in Health Services Research and co-founder of Pain Research Reading, stressed involving patients in the research process to better understand their experiences and needs. This approach ensures that clinical trials are designed with the patient in mind, potentially increasing their effectiveness and success rates.

Mark Field of eptivA Therapeutics discussed the potential of personalized medicine in reducing the high attrition rates of pain treatments. By using computational biology to create personalized analgesic approaches, researchers can develop treatments tailored to individual patients’ genetic and phenotypic profiles. This personalized approach could significantly improve the success rates of new treatments.

Future Directions and Conclusion

The conference concluded with a call for continued interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation in chronic pain research. The integration of psychological, biological, and social factors in understanding and treating pain represents a significant shift from traditional models. As researchers and clinicians work together, the future of chronic pain treatment looks promising, with the potential for more effective, holistic, and patient-centred approaches.

The conference particularly focused on three prevalent types of chronic pain: diabetic neuropathy, chronic lower back pain, and osteoarthritis. These conditions are not only widespread but also represent areas of significant unmet clinical need. Research and development efforts are being intensely directed towards finding effective treatments for these specific types of pain.

In summary, the Pain Research and Therapeutics Conference hosted by Pain Research Reading  examined the complexities of chronic pain and the innovative strategies being developed to address these challenges. By embracing a holistic, interdisciplinary approach and involving patients directly in research, the field is moving towards more effective and comprehensive pain management solutions.

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