Over the last few years, several new pain killers have been approved for use, are in early clinical trial, or are progressing well through development. Despite this, we are still largely dependent on drugs based on willow bark, for aspirin, and poppies, for morphine and other opiates. At the University of Nottingham, for their work in analgesic drug development, they have taken a completely new approach of targeting the process the body uses to generate many different proteins from a single gene – alternative RNA splicing. Using this approach, they aim to use endogenous systems in the body to treat neuropathic pain. Lucy Donaldson is a neurophysiologist and Associate Professor of the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham. At RE.WORK Future Technology Summit in London this September, Lucy will share her findings that have lead to the development of a new type of painkiller, providing an alternative option for chronic pain sufferers. We caught up with her ahead of the summit to hear more. Can you describe your research at Nottingham University and how it came about? I moved to Nottingham in 2013 and have continued the research that I was doing before coming here. I've been doing research into the ways in which the body reacts to injury, and how that might lead to chronic pain rather than healing, for my whole career. Most of our research work is looking at a completely new way of controlling pain, by controlling the way the body makes the molecules involved in pain generation. The mechanism that we are looking at is called alternative splicing and is the means through which our bodies make multiple proteins from a single gene - sometimes hundreds of different proteins with potentially different functions, from a single gene. We got into this area through collaboration with another group here in Nottingham who had identified a family of proteins made through alternative splicing, and how this is controlled. We showed that the new family has analgesic (pain-killing) effects, and if we control the alternative splicing we can either cause pain, or block it. What is the biggest obstacle to integrating your research developments into healthcare?The overall biggest obstacle is money, or lack of it, but there are others too. Firstly the initial stages of development, from what is done in the lab to getting to an actual drug takes a team of people so you have all the necessary skills - that takes a lot of work, building the team up and making the right connections with the right people. Then all this takes management to make sure that you have the right things in place at the right time. Having the right people with the necessary skills to push the research forward is absolutely key. In drug development, once you have the right molecules and the proof-of-concept that it will work, then there are the major hurdles of getting the money to start clinical trials, and of course meeting all the regulatory requirements to ensure that everything is as safe as it needs to be. What will be the key skills/jobs required in the future for your sector?It's an interesting question and one that there are several answers to depending on who you ask. There has been a technological revolution in biomedical sciences over the last 20 years, and there are so many things that we can now study at the molecular level that we could not study before. There are also massive advances in the use of in vitro and in silico approaches that allow us to model cellular events outside the living organism. In my view though we have overlooked the importance of understanding how an entire organism works, and I think one of the key skills will be the ability to study whole animal systems rather than just cellular systems. Which areas of your work do you feel could benefit from cross-industry collaboration? We already collaborate closely with chemists for the development of our molecules/drugs, and we would not be able to progress without our colleagues in that area. Collaboration with big pharmaceutical companies would help us with some of the aspects of our research. What emerging technology in healthcare are you most excited about?I'm interested and excited about medical diagnostics, particularly for example contact lenses that could detect glaucoma or raised glucose levels in diabetics. If properly validated these could be invaluable tools.Lucy Donaldson will be speaking at the Future Technology Summit in London on 24-25 September. Other medtech speakers include Sabine Hauert, Juan Moreno, Elaine Warburton, Stephen Dunne and more.
The Future Technology Summit is taking place