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Genetic differences may influence sensitivity to pain, according to new study

December 20, 2012
King's College London
A particular set of genes that interact with one another to regulate pain in humans has been identified. They found as well that differences in these genes may influence people's sensitivity to pain.

The study, published in PLOS Genetics on 20 December, adds to growing evidence that particular genes are involved in chronic pain and highlights this pathway as a potential target for more effective pain relief treatments for patients.

The collaborative study between King's, Pfizer Ltd and the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), used a new method to study and compare DNA, called 'exome sequencing', to identify genetic variations relating to pain sensitivity.

Lead author Dr Frances Williams, from the Department of Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology at King's College London said: 'Chronic pain is a significant personal and socio-economic burden, with nearly one in five people experiencing it at some time in their lives. Current pain treatments often have either limited efficacy or side effects for many, so the possibility of a new approach to pain relief is an exciting development.

It is known that people who are most sensitive to pain encountered in everyday life are more likely to go on to develop chronic pain. To identify sensitivity levels, researchers tested 2,500 volunteers using a heating probe on the arm. Volunteers were asked to press a button when the heat became painful for them, which allowed the scientists to determine individuals' pain thresholds. Exome sequencing was then used to analyse the DNA of 200 of the most pain sensitive and 200 of the least pain sensitive people.

Xin Jin, project manager from BGI, said: 'More and more evidence supports our theory that rare variants, which were overlooked in genome-wide association study, play a very important role in complex diseases and traits. The next generation of sequencing will make it possible to explore these rare variants and will lead to a wave of new discoveries in biomedical research.'

The results showed different patterns of genetic variants in each group -- the pain sensitive people had less variation in their DNA than those who were pain insensitive. Serena Scollen, Geneticist from Pfizer and co-author on the work said: 'Further studies are needed to understand fully the genetics that underlie pain sensitivity in humans, but early studies in this area are promising.'

Ruth McKernan, Chief Scientific Officer of Pfizer's Research Unit in Cambridge that works on new pain drugs said: 'This study demonstrates the value of collaborative efforts between academia and industry. The genetic influence on normal pain processing in human volunteer populations will add to other approaches and help us prioritise potential new mechanisms for treating pain.'

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Materials provided by King's College London. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Frances M. K. Williams, Serena Scollen, Dandan Cao, Yasin Memari, Craig L. Hyde, Baohong Zhang, Benjamin Sidders, Daniel Ziemek, Yujian Shi, Juliette Harris, Ian Harrow, Brian Dougherty, Anders Malarstig, Robert McEwen, Joel C. Stephens, Ketan Patel, Cristina Menni, So-Youn Shin, Dylan Hodgkiss, Gabriela Surdulescu, Wen He, Xin Jin, Stephen B. McMahon, Nicole Soranzo, Sally John, Jun Wang, Tim D. Spector. Genes Contributing to Pain Sensitivity in the Normal Population: An Exome Sequencing Study. PLoS Genetics, 2012; 8 (12): e1003095 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1003095

Cite This Page:

King's College London. "Genetic differences may influence sensitivity to pain, according to new study." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 December 2012. <>.
King's College London. (2012, December 20). Genetic differences may influence sensitivity to pain, according to new study. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 10, 2023 from
King's College London. "Genetic differences may influence sensitivity to pain, according to new study." ScienceDaily. (accessed December 10, 2023).

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