Expatriates suffering from neuropathic pain may be able to get a new kind of treatment paid for on international health insurance policies in the future.
This is because researchers from The Scripps Research Institute have discovered dimethylsphingosine (DMS) is produced by rats with this condition at unusually high amounts, with the molecule appearing to cause pain when it is injected into the animals.
Inhibiting this substance may therefore be a good and productive route for drug developers to go down, the findings indicate.
Scientists used a new initiative called metabolomics to research this condition, which is currently difficult to treat, as the way in which the pain persists is unknown.
Currently, traditional painkillers such as codeine, anti-inflammatories and paracetamol (acetaminophen) are not very helpful in reducing the symptoms of this condition, although anti-epileptic medication and anti-depressants have been known to be effective in some cases.
Metabolomics pays close attention to differences in the levels of small-molecule metabolites that act as the foundations for cellular activities, such as amino acids, vitamins and sugars.
Typically, when scientists wish to investigate why diseased cells behave in a different manner to healthy ones, they look into genetics in a process called genomics, or analyse proteins using proteomics.
"We think that this is a big step forward in understanding and treating neuropathic pain and also a solid demonstration of the power of metabolomics," said Gary Patti, assistant professor of genetics, chemistry, and medicine at Washington University in St. Louis and lead author of a report regarding the investigation, which was featured in Nature Chemical Biology.
Mr Patti and his colleagues are now looking further into the pain-inducing mechanisms of DMS and examining inhibitors of the production of this molecule in order to discover a treatment.
"We're very excited about this therapeutic metabolomics approach," said Gary Siuzdak, professor of chemistry and molecular biology and director of the Scripps Research Center for Metabolomics and a senior investigator in the study.