Wanted: A drug to banish pain

Like most of us, research scholar Anjali Sairaman at the IITB-Monash Research Academy has no memory of the first time she felt pain. What she does, remember, however, is that the concept of treatment of pain symptoms got lodged in her brain many years ago, like a gnawing headache which refused to go! Little wonder then, that when an opportunity presented itself many years later to study the subject in detail, she chose to focus her research on exploring a new drug to alleviate chronic or neuropathic pain.

A person in obvious pain
Picture Credit: Pain Pathway, © Anatomical Travelogue, Lic

The IITB-Monash Research Academy is a Joint Venture between the IIT Bombay, India and Monash University, Australia. Opened in 2008, the Academy operates a graduate research program located in Mumbai that aims to enhance research collaborations between Australia and India. Students study for a dually-badged PhD from both institutions, and spend time during their research in both India and Australia. Anjali Sairaman is undertaking a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) sponsored PhD at the IITB-Monash Research Academy.

Chronic pain is an intolerable condition for persons afflicted with this ailment. Some of the common symptoms include burning or coldness, "pins-and-needles" sensations, numbness, and itching without any external stimulus. Says Anjali, "There can be no greater satisfaction than in helping relieve someone's pain. However,a drug with a good pharmacological profile and relief for this debilitating pain is yet to be identified. My research project aims at mimicking 'contoxin', a natural toxin secreted by a marine snail. We are attempting to design and synthesize molecules that may be potent enough to bind to neuronal calcium ion channels and thus to be called a 'drug'".

"Prialt or Ziconitide is an approved drug for severe neuropathic pain," she continues. "However, due to side effects or inefficacy when delivered either orally or intravenously, it has to be administered intrathecally (i.e. directly into the spinal fluid). This is not only expensive but also involves additional risks. That is why it is critical to find a drug that can be administered orally."

Prialt / Ziconitide being administered intrathecally to alleviate pain
Picture Credit: http://sarastewartwork.com/

Summarising her work in this area so far, Anjali says, "We have designed and synthesized a few first generation molecules/organic compounds which may have a better effect towards chronic pain than what is available now. These compounds need to be tested for functional assays to know the binding affinity with the N-type calcium channels. If the binding efficacy is found to be convincing, then further tests need to be done." An assay is an investigative (analytic) procedure for qualitatively assessing or quantitatively measuring the presence or amount or the functional activity of a target entity (the analyte).

Among those keenly tracking Anjali's progress is Prof Murali Sastry, CEO, IITB-Monash Research Academy, who says, "The IITB-Monash Research Academy has the potential to make significant contributions to business and society in India and Australia. The work of Anjali under the supervision of Prof Kaliappan, Prof Tuck and Prof Duggan is an excellent example of synergies between the two institutions being unlocked to solve an important wellness problem, that of alleviation of chronic pain. I am truly excited about the impact that this research can have."

Pain alleviation, you would agree, is a grand-challenge project that deserves to be somewhere at the top of this list.

Research scholar: Anjali Sairaman, IITB-Monash Research Academy

Project title: Design and Synthesis of Small Organic Molecules as Blockers of Neuronal Calcium Ion Channels Relevant to Neuropathic Pain

Supervisors: Prof Krishna P Kaliappan, Dr Kellie Tuck, Dr Peter Duggan

Contact details: saianjali@gmail.com

Contact research@iitbmonash.org for more information on this, and other projects.