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New Implant May Replace Opioid Pain Killers

Clinical researchers say that a new implantable device that “cools nerves” may be a viable alternative to traditional opioid pain killers. 

The makers of the device say that it could bring benefits for the management of acute pain such as that experienced after amputations, nerve grafts, or spinal decompression surgeries.

“We are optimistic that this represents a very promising starting point for an engineering approach to treating pain,” said Prof John Rogers of Northwestern University in Illinois, a co-author of the research.

So far, the device has only been tested in rats, but the results are promising. Roger’s cautioned that it might be some time before the implant is available to patients. “As with any implantable device, the regulatory process can be slow, typically involving much more extensive animal model studies over a period of years,” he said.

Not to get overly bogged down in the technology, but the device literally “cools down” nerve fibers dropping their temperature so low that they can no longer effectively transmit pain signals. 

“The net effect when cooling is applied to a nerve is in blocking of electrical signals,” Rogers said, adding that it is not unlike the numbing sensation in your fingertips that can occur in cold weather.

Roger’s and his team say the implant has a number of benefits – including that, in contrast with opioid drugs, it is not addictive. What’s more, as the implant is made using water-soluble and biocompatible materials, it can break down in the body after use.

“Typical operating lifetime is in the range of weeks, and the corresponding time for complete dissolution is in the range of months,” said Rogers, who said the implant could be inserted as an extension of a patient’s initial surgery.

Not involved in this research but speaking to the press in a personal capacity, Prof David Bennett, an expert in pain at the University of Oxford, said that there is a need to find alternatives to painkillers like opioids and praised the engineering of the implant.

But, he said, the approach has potential drawbacks, including that while it may reduce pain, the device would block all types of nerve fibers, including those serving other sensations such as touch and those to muscles, potentially resulting in significant weakness.

“The issue is that as so far presented, there is very little specificity for pain,” said Bennett. “Finally, there may be a proportion of people in whom cooling could exacerbate pain, and we would also need to consider the side effects of long-term cooling.”

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