Researchers say the discovery could lead to better understanding of chronic pain and chemotherapy-related pain.
Have you heard the old saying, “There is nothing new under the sun”?
Well, apparently there could be something new just under your skin.
That’s according to researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden who say they’ve discovered a new pain-sensing organ.
“We call it the nociceptive glio-neural complex. It is not a very catchy name, but it explains its function and cellular structure,” Patrik Ernfors, PhD, a professor in the department of medical biochemistry and biophysics at the Karolinska Institute and the study’s chief investigator, told Healthline.
The findings were recently published in the journal Science.
Researchers describe the newly uncovered organ as a meshlike network of Schwann cells with tentacle-like extensions. Situated just under the surface of the skin, they wrap around the ends of pain-sensing cells.
The scientists tested the role of those specific Schwann cells using mice.
“We initially did not look for the possibility that there could be a new sensory organ in the skin, so this was a big surprise,” Ernfors said.
“We were studying other questions using research tools that allowed us to see these cells, and realized in those studies that pain-detecting free nerves in the skin were not ‘free’ but covered with these specialized cells,” Ernfors explained.
“This led us to ask if they could have a function in pain detection, so we generated genetic models that allowed us to test this. And to our surprise, activating these glia cells led to a pain response,” he added.
A 2011 study from the Institute of Medicine called “Relieving Pain in America” reported that chronic pain affects about 100 million adults in the United States.
That’s more than the total number affected by heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined.
Chronic pain is also a financial burden. It costs as much as $635 billion a year in medical treatments and loss of productivity.
And yet there was little pain research being conducted.
“Kudos to them and anybody else in labs studying pain physiology. Consumers need it,” Dr. David Copenhaver, MPH, the chief of the division of pain medicine at the University of California, Davis, told Healthline. “There’s a lot we don’t know. It’s what drove me into the field.”
Copenhaver says scientists have known about Schwann cells for years.
“But what is new is that this is suggesting there is a network of cells and tissue that previously hadn’t been described as having a relationship to pain,” he explained. “This starts to open the door. Does this serve as a target for addressing pain in a different way?”
He says one example of how this research might prove helpful is in finding ways to treat chemotherapy-induced nerve damage in the hands and feet.
“Individuals on chemotherapy can have severe pain in their hands and feet and it feels like their skin is burning,” Copenhaver said. “This could very well have broad implications.”
Ernfors says his team still has lots of research work ahead.
“We still don’t know how the Schwann cells of the sensory organ communicate with the nerve. We don’t know the exact proteins in the membrane that respond to mechanical pressure or stimuli and activate the cells,” he said.
“We don’t know if they exist in human skin and their possible roles in chronic pain. There are many other important questions that arise with this finding, and it will take some years to fully understand it,” he added.
“We hope that this discovery will be helpful in explaining the causes and mechanisms of some chronic pain disorders. If they are involved, this could aid in the development of new pain-relieving drugs,” Ernfors said.