By Steve Weakley
A revolutionary new blood test developed by Australian researchers could give doctors instant insight into the severity of chronic pain by identifying colored biomarkers in the blood. The “painHS” test uses advanced light spectrum analysis to identify the molecular structure of pain in immune cells.
“We are literally quantifying the color of pain,” explains neuroscientist Mark Hutchinson, PhD, a professor at the University of Adelaide Medical School in Australia. “We’ve now discovered that we can use the natural color of biology to predict the severity of pain. What we’ve found is that persistent chronic pain has a different natural color in immune cells than in a situation where there isn’t persistent pain.”
Hutchinson and his colleagues discovered molecular changes in the immune cells of chronic pain patients. These pain biomarkers can be instantly identified through hyperspectral imaging, giving doctors the ability to measure a patient’s pain tolerance and sensitivity.
The test could potentially provide physicians with the first biology-based test to measure pain as the “5th vital sign” and to justify prescribing pain medication or other therapies.
Hutchinson was quick to point out that the test is not intended replace a patient’s description of pain to their physician. Pain is subjective and varies from patient to patient, depending on their medical condition and many other factors. Current tests used to measure pain in adults, such as the sad and smiley faces of the Wong-Baker pain scale, are so simple they were initially developed for young children.
“Self-reporting (by patients) is still going to be key but what this does mean is that those ‘forgotten people’ who are unable to communicate their pain conditions such as babies or people with dementia can now have their condition diagnosed and treated,” said Hutchinson, who believes the test could also revolutionize pain treatment in animals.
“Animals can’t tell us if they’re in pain but here we have a Dr. Doolittle type test that enables us to ‘talk’ to the animals so we can find out if they are experiencing pain and then we can help them."
Hutchinson says the test could also help speed the development of new drugs that could target particular kinds of chronic pain, and could eliminate the need for placebos in clinical trials by giving an instant indicator of a treatment’s effectiveness.
“We now know there is a peripheral cell signal, so we could start designing new types of drugs for new types of cellular therapies that target the peripheral immune system to tackle central nervous system pain,” he explained.
Hutchinson thinks the “painHS” test could be widely available to pain specialists and general practitioners in as little as 18 months and could provide a cost-effective tool to measure the severity of pain in patients with back problems, cancer, fibromyalgia, migraines and other conditions.
Several other blood tests have already been developed to diagnose patients with specific chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia.
IQuity Labs recently introduced a blood test that can identify fibromyalgia by analyzing ribonucleic acid (RNA) in blood molecules. EpicGenetics launched the first fibromyalgia blood test in 2013. That test looks for chemokines and cytokines, which are protein molecules produced by white blood cells.