Radical new research opens window on chronic pain

By Ian Williams

Professor Mark Hutchinson is an award-winning Adelaide neuroscientist who thinks big but operates small – right down to the infinitesimally tiny nanoscale level.

It’s an approach that could bring relief to millions of people worldwide who suffer from debilitating chronic pain.

Since graduating from the University of Adelaide in 1999 Mark has been pursuing a radical line of research that’s thrown a grenade under the traditional view that nerves control all pain.

He’s successfully demonstrated that chronic pain can be linked to over-sensitive glia, the immune cells which support the brain’s nervous system.

“The discovery is helping to explain why traditional drugs such as morphine and codeine are often ineffective and that they can even make the condition worse,” said Mark.

Now as director of the recently established Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics, Mark and a team of 100 scientists and PhD students are using powerful sensing tools to create new windows into the human body.

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The approach will help scientists better understand the cellular processes surrounding everything from fertility to heart disease – and the triggers for conditions such as chronic pain.

“Currently there is no test to quantify pain,” said Mark. “We’re using novel light measurement tools to identify the molecular signatures of what pain actually looks like.

“Our ultimate goal is to develop a diagnostic blood test to identify people with an over-sensitive immune reaction to pain and to find treatments to prevent and cure the condition.”

The fact that the ARC centre can draw on a multi-talented team of physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians and engineers provides a trans-disciplinary edge to the quest.

Headquartered at the University of Adelaide, it brings together scientists from Sydney’s Macquarie University and RMIT University in Melbourne, as well as research partners in Europe, the US and China.

The centre is also pursuing partnerships with industry in line with the Federal Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda.

“Gone are the days of academics toiling away in their ivory towers and then reaching out to see if industry is interested once a discovery has been made,” said Mark. “The aim now is to link with them from day one and identify ways we can use our expertise and tools on projects that will result in real change.”