Research can help ease pain and potentially save lives Picture: Sizwe Ndingane

Three University of Pretoria scientists are part of a team whose research on African mole-rats has led to a discovery that may hold the key to managing pain in humans.

The team’s research on the rates, which are indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, found that the rodents were insensitive to different types of pain. The species’ adaptations to a lack of oxygen and a surplus of carbon dioxide underground, as well as a humidity close to saturation, could spur further advances in human pain management.

The research team, led by Professor Gary Lewin from the Max Delbrück Centre for molecular medicine in Berlin, Germany, includes US neuroscientist Professor Thom Park and University of Pretoria zoologist Professor Nigel Bennett, supported by UP colleagues Dr Heike Lutermann and Daniel Hart.

"(The research) has revealed that as a consequence of genetic changes to its pain channels, the highveld mole-rat, which is found in South Africa’s Gauteng province, is able to live alongside venomous ants with painful stings that mole-rats avoid," Prof. Bennett said.

He said the research team had explored how eight other African mole-rat species related to the naked mole-rat responded to three substances that usually cause a brief burning sensation on the skin of human beings and other mammals.

The substances were diluted hydrochloric acid, capsaicin, and allyl isothiocyanate (AICT), which gives wasabi, the condiment served with sushi, an extremely hot taste.

Three mole-rat species proved insensitive to acid while two species did not show evidence of pain after having a capsaicin solution injected into their paw. Only the highveld mole-rat proved to be unaffected by AICT, which attacks amino acids in the body and can thus destroy proteins.

The research showed that irritants that may penetrate the skin such as insect stings from bees, wasps, hornets and ants which can bring about anaphylactic shock and various nettles and other plant hairs that carry irritants which bring about pain could potentially be alleviated in future by the administration of chemicals that alter the movement of ions through membranes. 

“This could help ease pain and potentially save lives,” Prof Bennett said. “But this is another project for the future!”

- African News Agency (ANA)