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ASU study: Receptor that detects cold might provide path for painkillers with fewer side effects

Diagram depicting ancestral sequencing reconstruction for TRPM8.
Wade Van Horn
Diagram depicting ancestral sequencing reconstruction for TRPM8.

About 20% of U.S. adults have chronic pain and treatment can sometimes have devastating effects.

A new study from Arizona State University researchers suggests a pathway for creating new, non-addictive therapies.

"Part of the motivation for this was to see if we could come up with a new type of pain therapy that is inherently non-addictive and could satisfy, you know, a number of needs in the clinic," said Wade Van Horn, an ASU professor.

That could be done by targeting the receptor TRPM8, which senses cold temperatures. It also is a chemical receptor, meaning it makes things like mints feel cold, too.

Van Horn is among the authors of a new paper that found that it was possible to separate the physical and chemical triggers for sensing cold. That could lead to the development of medicines with fewer side effects.

“We think some of the features of this study suggest that we should be able to do that, that we can tease out what should give rise to a good pain medicine and leave the side effects behind," Von Horn said.

He says this was done through ancestral sequence reconstruction. Which is like looking at a family tree of proteins.

The sequencing revealed that TRPM8 actually developed as a chemical receptor before physical.

Van Horn said this kind of painkiller could be helpful for people such as cancer patients.

“Often cancer patients have a kind of cold tolerance pain called cold allodynia. And so if you touch a desk, you and I, for example, it will often feel just slightly cold. Sometimes if you're on chemotherapeutics as a cancer patient that will hurt. And so there's lots of different kinds of pains and old pains that in theory, we might be able to treat by targeting TRPM8," Van Horn said.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances.

Greg Hahne started as a news intern at KJZZ in 2020 and returned as a field correspondent in 2021. He learned his love for radio by joining Arizona State University's Blaze Radio, where he worked on the production team.