In 2010, a chemist named Jelena Janjic started suffering severe, inexplicable bouts of pain. It was a full body experience that at one point landed her in the emergency room, but the doctors there – and all of the ones that followed – had no answers for her. She had a chronic pain syndrome, they told her, and there was nothing they could do. She’d have to learn to live with it for the rest of her life. It was then that Janjic, now an associate professor of pharmacology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, decided to start researching better, opioid-free ways of treating pain on her own.
Janjic was given pain medications, but they left her feeling as though she was in a fog, and she had trouble concentrating and remembering things. She decided to try non-medical options instead, like mindfulness meditation and playing the piano. The pain didn’t go away, although it did lessen, but Janjic was determined not to use opioids, knowing that they don’t work well for chronic pain and that she’d be risking developing a dependence.
In her research, Janjic determined that her pain came from inflammation, and that it would often hit in different places and degrees of severity. This fluctuation, she decided, meant that more immune cells were traveling to the parts of the body that were in pain, and that if she could get medicine to ride along with those immune cells, it would reach the exact place in the body where it was needed.
Janjic eventually came up with something she calls pain nanomedicine. Nanomedicine uses nanotechnology – the manipulation of matter on a subatomic scale – to deliver the smallest possible amount of medicine into our bodies, minimizing harmful or unpleasant side effects. She had already experimented with nanomedicine in cancer research, where she placed cancer drugs in nanoparticles and injected them into patients so they would reach their immune cells. Adapting the technique to treat pain, she put a nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drug (or NSAID) into a nanoparticle. The NSAID was then injected into a rat, and results showed that the method did decrease the rat’s pain.
Janjic is the founder and co-director of the Chronic Pain Research Consortium at Duquesne University, and she is currently collaborating with different labs to try matching up different pain medications with different kinds of nanoparticles to see what combinations work best. Even if a winning combination is found, it will take years before it can be tested on human patients and eventually approved by the FDA. Still, it’s a promising avenue for some day making opioid painkillers obsolete for people suffering from chronic pain.
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