skip to main content

Novel botulinum compound relieves chronic pain

24 Jul 2018

DERM-BOT compound could revolutionise how chronic pain is treated and replace opioid drugs

Modified botulinum gives long-lasting pain relief without adverse effects

A modified form of botulinum toxin gives long-lasting pain relief without adverse effects and, in time, could replace opioid drugs as a safe and effective way of treating chronic pain, according to new research by the University of Sheffield, UCL and the Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto.

For the study, published today in Science Translational Medicine and funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), scientists deconstructed the botulinum molecule and reassembled it with an opioid called dermorphin to make Derm-BOT – a compound which successfully targets and silences pain signals from neurons in the spinal cords of mice.

Key neurons in the spinal cord are targets for pain management as they directly ‘sense’ pain and send this information to the brain.

Co-corresponding author, Professor Bazbek Davletov from the Department of Biomedical Science at the University of Sheffield, said: “We needed to find the best pain targeting molecular parts to direct the botulinum silencing ‘warhead’ to the pain-controlling system in the spine.

“For this, we developed a molecular Lego system which allows us to link the botulinum ‘warhead’ to a navigation molecule, in this case, the strong opioid called dermorphin, allowing the creation of widely desired long-lasting pain killers without the side effects of opioids.”

Dermorphin targets and binds to opioid receptors on the surface of neurons which allows the Derm-BOT compound to enter the cells where the botulinum ‘warhead’ then reversibly inhibits the release of neurotransmitter, silencing the cells essential for sending pain signals to the brain.

“Injected into the spine, Derm-BOT relieves chronic pain – such as that caused by nerve damage – and avoids the adverse events of tolerance and addiction often associated with repeated opioid drug use,” explained co-corresponding author, Professor Steve Hunt from UCL’s  Department of Cell and Developmental Biology.

“It doesn’t affect muscles like the botulinum used to reduce wrinkles, but it does block nerve pain for up to four months without affecting normal pain responses. It really could revolutionise how chronic pain is treated if we can translate it into clinic, removing the need for daily opioid intake.”

Chronic pain of ‘moderate to severe’ intensity is widespread affecting 7.8 million people in the UK and 19 per cent of adult Europeans. It is a serious social and medical problem which negatively impacts quality of life.

Opioids like morphine and fentanyl are considered to be the gold standard for pain relief but there is little evidence that their long-term use is effective in treating chronic pain. This is because the body builds up a tolerance to repeated drug use which over the long term.  Paradoxically opioids can also increase the body’s sensitivity to pain.

In the UK, five per cent of the population are on opioids with 80 per cent reporting negative side effects.

Opioid medications can also activate brain reward regions, causing addiction. Over two million individuals in the US have ‘opioid use disorder’ with most starting with prescribed opioid painkillers and opioid overdose is now the second leading cause of death in the US.

Previous studies in rats and companion dogs show that precise injections of tiny amounts of toxic substances, such as ‘substance P-saporin’, into the spine kill neurons responsible for crippling, chronic pain. This approach relies on an analogue of ricin which is difficult to manufacture to clinical standards and clinicians are resistant to irreversibly kill nerve cells.

In contrast, Derm-BOT is safe to manufacture, is non-toxic and does not kill neurons.

Over a five year period, 200 mice were used to simulate the early stages of human inflammatory and neuropathic pain and were treated with a single injection of either Derm-BOT, SP-BOT (a substance P-modified botulinum molecule) or morphine. The behaviour of the mice was monitored to track their pain-response and the locations and binding properties of the botulinum compounds were investigated.

“Both SP-BOT and Derm-BOT have a long-lasting effect in both inflammatory and neuropathic pain model, successfully silencing neurons without cell death,” said lead author Dr Maria Maiarù from UCL’s Department of Cell and Developmental Biology.

“We were impressed to see that one tiny injection was enough to stop chronic pain caused by inflammation and nerve damage for at least a month,” said lead author, Dr Maria Maiarù from UCL’s Cell and Developmental Biology.

“Furthermore, a single injection of Derm-BOT reduced mechanical hypersensitivity to the same extent as morphine. We hope to take our investigations forward with the aim of translating this into the clinic.”

Additional Information
Maria Maiarù, Charlotte Leese, Michelangelo Certo, Irene Echeverria-Altuna, Antonina S. Mangione, Jason Arsenault, Bazbek Davletov, Stephen P. Hunt, ‘Selective neuronal silencing using synthetic botulinum molecules alleviates chronic pain in mice’ will be published in Science Translational Medicine on Wednesday 18 July 2018, 1900 UK time and is under a strict embargo until this time.

The DOI for this paper will be 10.1126/scitranslmed.aar7384.

*the number of animals used was the minimum consistent with the aim of the experiment and all efforts were made to minimize animal suffering in line with the UK Animal Act 1986.

The University of Sheffield

With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.
Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2018 and for the last eight years has been ranked in the top five UK universities for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields. Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations

< Back to News