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Decoding pain, one gene at a time

Are you quick to feel physical pain? There’s now hope for the delicate flowers among us! “Roughly half of our sensitivity to pain is determined by our genetic makeup,” affirms Luda Diatchenko, researcher at the Allan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain at McGill University and director of the genetics and genomics analysis platform of the Québec Pain Research Network. The geneticist’s work counters the popular belief that there is no link between pain and our genes. Although science still cannot fully explain everything, the genetic sources of pain are coming to light, one at a time.

A hypersensitivity gene

“Pain is a mysterious phenomenon that is understudied and underestimated, despite the fact that 20% of Canadians suffer from chronic pain. This is what attracted me to the field,” reveals Dr. Diatchenko. Before she discovered her passion, she earned a medical degree—but never practiced—and specialized in biochemistry and molecular biology in her home city of Moscow.

Curious and eager to experience other cultures, Luda Diatchenko secured a position in a California biotech firm. Working to design gene analysis tools, she learned English by doing. Seven years later, she joined a pain research group at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To transfer her discoveries into clinical applications, she cofounded two companies: Attagene and Algynomics. She also filed for a number of pain-related patents and developed a genetic screening test for the COMT gene. Individuals who carry certain variants of the gene are hypersensitive to pain and more likely to suffer from chronic pain but also respond better to the analgesic effects of propranolol, a drug often prescribed to heart patients that Dr. Diatchenko identified as a possible pain medication.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

The geneticist’s unique expertise transcends borders. She is the first woman to be awarded a Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) and currently holds the CECR in human pain genetics at McGill University. In a new country and new language, Luda Diatchenko realized that we are all infinitely skilled: “We can adapt to different situations by finding the solutions that are required. Strike out and do what you choose to do.” Indeed, that is the message that the researcher and mother has for women who hesitate to embark on a career in academic research. While there are more women in science today than when she first started out, many still leave graduate training programs to have children. “It isn’t family that makes them abandon academic research. It’s the fear that they won’t be able to be successful in their careers and personal lives,” she says.