A research initiative on the source of pain

November 11, 2013

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem is one of 11 universities, medical centers and research institutes in seven countries participating in ncRNAPain, a new European research project that aims at further exploring the biological mechanisms underlying chronic pain.

The Hebrew University is the only Israeli institution involved in this 6-million euro European Commission-funded project. The other countries represented are Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Denmark and the United Kingdom.

The Hebrew University aspect of the research, funded at 525,960 euros, will be conducted by a research team headed by Professor Hermona Soreq, former dean of the Faculty of Science, a member of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences and the Charlotte Slesinger Professor of Molecular Neuroscience.

Chronic pain syndromes that develop after nerve damage, trauma or surgery are characterized by persistent and severe pain. They induce anxiety and depression and greatly impair patients’ quality of life. One out of five Europeans suffer from chronic pain, many of them for more than two years, some even longer.

Chronic pain constitutes not only a heavy burden for individual patients and their families, but also for European national health systems, since treatment cost take up 1.5 to 3 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) per year. Advancing scientific research in this field is thus considered a societal need and a crucial engagement for improved patient care.

Over the next four years, ncRNAPain will focus on pain-regulating non-coding RiboNucleic Acids (ncRNAs). “Recent scientific findings suggest that these biological molecules, which perform multiple vital roles in our genetic make-up, are also important controllers of chronic pain syndromes,” explains Prof Michaela Kress, director of the Division of Physiology at Innsbruck Medical University and coordinator of ncRNAPain.

Against this backdrop, the project therefore seeks to identify and validate specific ncRNAs that could serve as basis for the development of new drugs for pain prevention and relief. Diagnostic tools developed in the course of the project will enable better patient stratification, improved treatment and targeted prevention strategies for high-risk individuals. NcRNAPain thus aims to provide a major advancement in both, the knowledge of how pain is generated, propagated and relieved, and in evidence-based diagnosis and treatment.

To achieve this ambitious goal, a multidisciplinary project consortium has been brought together of leading molecular and systems-level neuroscientists and bioinformatics as well as ncRNA experts and clinical partners from 11 partner countries.

Professor Soreq explains her work at The Hebrew University:“MicroRNAs (a form of ncRNAs) are a new finding. They are only known for less than 20 years, but it is already clear that they have an important surveillance job, controlling many genes. They do that by wrapping around gene products, the RNA, and reducing their option to get translated into proteins. Furthermore, they block an entire series of genes, all involved in a pathway, so they work like general dimmers of electricity, so to speak, not blackening out but shadowing.

“We know about many hundreds of microRNAs, and a large part of those are unique to humans (so mouse tests will not be useful). The new group is about microRNAs involved in pain -- an important phenomenon which is often regarded as a symptom, whereas it should be taken more seriously as a phenomenon on its own merit and treated as such. This is especially the case in advanced ages, which also implies that its impact will increase with life expectancy prolongation.

“What we want to do is to combine sequencing tests in human blood cells with efforts to block excess microRNAs. There are many partners involved, including pain clinician specialists, but also basic researchers. We hope to gain new diagnostic biomarkers and find new targets for therapeutic interference.