Other Voices

Texas can solve the problem of chronic pain

Entertainer Prince died April 21 at age 57 from an accidental overdose of the prescription opiod fentanyl.
Entertainer Prince died April 21 at age 57 from an accidental overdose of the prescription opiod fentanyl. AP

The tragic, high-profile death of Prince has shed much-needed light on a growing epidemic of chronic pain and prescription drug misuse in the United States.

Chronic pain affects as many as 100 million Americans — people who are hurting and desperately looking for a solution. In an effort to fight the pain, many have turned to opioids — drugs that help relieve the discomfort.

Opioids, including codeine, hydrocodone and Dilaudid, are among the most widely prescribed drugs for pain.

Unfortunately, these medicines also have led to a rise in overdoses, now a leading cause of death among Americans.

From 1999 to 2010, deaths due to prescription opioid drugs quadrupled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC estimates that 46 people die each day from overdoses of prescription painkillers.

These facts present a devastating problem for our healthcare system and for our society. They also present an opportunity for Texas to take the lead in developing a solution.

Texas long has been leading the country in pain research.

The late Dr. William Willis was a pioneer in the neuroscience of pain at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Beginning in the 1970s, his leadership created a strong pain research base that has grown across our state’s scientific and educational institutions for decades.

There now are pain research hubs in all of Texas’ major cities, linked by our commitment to strengthen and unify the expanding pain research efforts across the state.

My lab at the University of Texas at Dallas has been studying the molecular mechanisms that cause chronic pain.

For example, we recently found a new mechanism, called neuroligin-2, which appears to contribute to a reduction in pain.

Our goal is to develop therapeutics that target and potentially reverse the changes in the nervous system that cause pain.

My colleague Dr. Gregory Dussor, also at UT Dallas, is a leading researcher in the area of migraine headaches.

Dr. Edgar T Walters at UT Health Science Center in Houston is making breakthroughs on how spinal cord injury leads to chronic neuropathic pain.

Dr. Kenneth Hargreaves at UT Health Science Center San Antonio is discovering how burn injury leads to persistent pain.

And there are a number of other researchers in the state who are making great strides toward solving the pain problem.

With so many Americans suffering from chronic pain, and with such a strong research base in Texas, the time is right for statewide initiatives toward developing new therapies for the treatment of chronic pain.

Those affected by chronic pain deserve therapeutics that can alleviate their suffering.

New medications would have a huge impact on chronic pain treatment. Currently, chronic pain patients are prescribed opioids because caregivers do not have effective therapeutic options.

To fight the opioid epidemic, we must create innovative new medicines that change the story about chronic pain.

With the commitment of research institutions and state leaders, research can grow and the vision of an opioid-free future for chronic pain patients can become reality.

Theodore Price is an associate professor in the School of Behavioral Brain Science at University of Texas at Dallas.