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SLU researchers work to prevent chemotherapy pain

Enrollment for Missouri Medicare begins Tuesday and lasts until early December.
Susannah Lohr
St. Louis Public Radio

Saint Louis University researchers are one step closer to understanding how to prevent the chronic pain associated with chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy patients often experience burning and tingling in the hands and feet, known as “chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain.” The condition has no known treatment, but new research offers a reason to hope. In a recent study, a team of SLU researchers successfully “turned off” the pain associated with a common chemotherapy drug.


An estimated 20-40 percent of chemotherapy patients experience chronic pain, which can last for years after treatment ends.

“We’ve now become very good at killing tumors and improving survival rates in patients, but unfortunately, many millions of Americans suffer the consequences of the therapy,” said Daniela Salvemini, a professor of pharmacology and physiology at SLU.

Salvemini is part of a research team working to understand the causes of chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain.

In a recent experiment, they studied the pain associated with oxaliplatin, a common platinum-based chemotherapy drug used to treat colorectal cancer.

Credit Daniela Salvemini
Spinal cord astrocyte cells had higher levels of the enzyme adenosine kinase, shown in red, after chemotherapy. That leads to lower activation of a key receptor, which causes the pain.

When given to rodents, the drug caused an increase in one particular enzyme, adenosine kinase, in central nervous system cells called astrocytes. This causes a biochemical domino effect, resulting in lower activation of a key receptor and an increase in chemotherapy pain. 

Researchers then gave the mice and rats a drug to activate the receptor, effectively blocking the pain.

“What’s exciting about the research is we’ve identified a receptor that we can selectively target with drugs in order to alleviate the pain response,” Salvemini said. “Not only can we inhibit it, but we can also reverse the pain once it’s already established.”

Due to the lack of effective treatment options, doctors prescribe opioids to manage neuropathic pain. Salvemini said the hope is to eventually be able to reduce the need for narcotic pain relievers.

“My mission to see whether we can come up with strategies that can alleviate this so we can really have a major impact on human suffering and quality of life for many patients,” she said.

They are planning to develop the model for clinical testing within the next few years.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @ShahlaFarzan

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award.