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HEAL-ing pain at NIH

How NIH is paving new pathways for developing non-addictive pain therapies

In a move that could change how pain is studied and treated, NIH is planning a series of projects to build a platform for translational research that is more predictive and reproducible than the current paradigms. The agency hopes to find new strategies to intercept chronic pain as it develops and spur development of non-addictive therapies.

NIH’s Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative, launched in April and described in a June Journal of the American Medical Association viewpoint, offers a path to a coordinated effort to capitalize on emerging ideas and new technologies in the field. The interdisciplinary program is part of the institute’s response to the opioid crisis and seeks solutions through preclinical, clinical and community-based research.

“The classic idea of pain dependent on a single receptor is just not true. The whole brain is involved.”

A. Vania Apkarian, Northwestern University

Increasingly, researchers are putting forward new hypotheses about the biology of pain that incorporate the whole brain, rather than specific circuits that travel through the spinal cord, and that take into account cognitive and mental state as well as physiology.

“The classic idea of pain dependent on a single receptor is just not true. The whole brain is involved,” said A. Vania Apkarian, a professor of physiology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

In addition, emerging technologies, from imaging to induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, are generating opportunities to upend the classical animal models of pain that have been poor predictors of clinical activity.

Rebecca Baker, special assistant to the NIH Director on Pain and Opioids, told BioCentury there’s been a long history of poor translation to the

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