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A blood test could take the guesswork out of pain

February 21, 2019

Pain is subjective, and clinicians often ask patients to rate their pain on a 1-10 scale. Unfortunately, people who have become addicted to painkillers often overrate their pain in order to procure prescriptions.

In a development that could someday help address the opioid scourge, University of Indiana School of Medicine researchers say they have developed a prototype blood test that quantifies pain based on molecular biomarkers.

The prototype “can objectively tell doctors if the patient is in pain, and how severe that pain is. It’s very important to have an objective measure of pain, as pain is a subjective sensation. Until now we have had to rely on patients self-reporting or the clinical impression the doctor has,” psychiatry professor Alexander Niculescu, MD, PhDsaid in a news release.

Pinpointing blood-based biomarkers

The researchers tracked hundreds of participants at an Indianapolis veteran’s hospital to identify blood-based biomarkers — in this case molecules — that reflect disease severity. These molecules can be matched to drugs and natural compounds that address those biomarkers.

“The biomarker is like a fingerprint, and we match it against this database and see which compound would normalize the signature,” said Niculescu, adding that often the best treatment identified is a non-opioid drug or compound. “We found [that] some compounds that have been used for decades to treat other things pair the best with the biomarkers. We have been able to match biomarkers with existing medications, or natural compounds, which would reduce or eliminate the need to use the opioids.”

Refining the test, and advancing clinical application

The research also shed light on biomarkers that can help predict a patient’s pain in the future. The team hopes to conduct more research to discover biomarkers that work better for women, men, or patients with particular conditions (e.g., headache or fibromyalgia), and to advance the approach to clinical application.

This prototype blood test, and the personalized treatment it enables, is another example of precision medicine and the power of the blood to inform clinicians about a patient’s condition. Blood and biofluids– whole blood, plasma, serum or buffy coats – are among the myriad human biospecimens available through the iSpecimen Marketplace. Researchers can filter biospecimens by a host of criteria, including patient demographics, diagnoses, medications, and past procedures.

As we’ve blogged before, the blood reveals a lot about our health – and, soon, how much we hurt.

Learn more about the iSpecimen Marketplace where you can browse millions of richly annotated, de-identified tissue and biofluid biospecimens or to request a quote or custom collection. You can join for free and creating a login is easy.