Anyone who suffers from pain might be interested in the tale of a 10-year-old street performer in Pakistan. The boy, whose name is thus far withheld, allegedly never felt pain. Part of his performance, which perplexed onlookers, consisted of walking barefoot on hot coals and sticking knives through his arms. He was well known to local medical authorities because he’d show up at the hospital asking to be patched up after his performance.
The boy’s living story ended early, as he died the day he turned 14, after jumping from a roof. But his tale lives on, as researchers have made a genetic breakthrough that could set the table for more effective painkillers across the world. In this boy, and three related families, they’ve discovered something important about a mutated gene that plays a crucial role in how the human body perceives pain.
If that gene experiences a mutation, a defect, it becomes inactive toward that perception of pain. This means that drugs could be developed that target this gene in a novel attempt to cure chronic pain. As a matter of fact, drug giant Pfizer Inc. already has a pain reliever in production, based on this discovery.
The story comes courtesy of British and Pakistani scientists who tracked down six of the boy’s relatives. All of them said that they couldn’t remember a single time when they felt pain. Just like the boy, they didn’t know what pain felt like, but understood the type of things that normally should cause pain. The research team found that all of them had a defect in the gene “SCN9A.” This is called a “sodium channel,” and it produces nerve impulses that carry pain signals to the brain. The defect, in this case, stopped the gene’s function meaning signals of pain are never sent.
This recently came to light in an article published in the journal Nature. Pain is an important part of life, as it represents the biggest warning sing we have that something is wrong with our bodies. Without it, health problems and injuries can occur without us even knowing it. For example, when these individuals were babies and toddlers, they had many injuries to their lips and tongue because they’d bite themselves.
Though there is still much to learn about this genetic link to pain, experts are calling it very significant, striking, and possibly as important in the long run as the discoveries of morphine and opiate receptors in our body — that led to those two types of major painkillers. Where will the SCN9A gene lead?