Drugging the pain epigenome

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Abstract

More than 20% of adults worldwide experience different types of chronic pain, which are frequently associated with several comorbidities and a decrease in quality of life. Several approved painkillers are available, but current analgesics are often hampered by insufficient efficacy and/or severe adverse effects. Consequently, novel strategies for safe, highly efficacious treatments are highly desirable, particularly for chronic pain. Epigenetic mechanisms such as DNA methylation, histone modifications and microRNAs (miRNAs) strongly affect the regulation of gene expression, potentially for long periods over years or even generations, and have been associated with pathophysiological pain. Several studies, mostly in animals, revealed that inhibitors of DNA methylation, activators and inhibitors of histone modification and modulators of miRNAs reverse a number of pathological changes in the pain epigenome, which are associated with altered expression of pain-relevant genes. This epigenetic modulation might then reduce the nociceptive response and provide novel therapeutic options for analgesic therapy of chronic pain states. However, a number of challenges, such as nonspecific effects and poor delivery to target cells and tissues, hinder the rapid development of such analgesics. In this Review, we critically summarize data on epigenetics and pain, focusing on challenges in clinical development as well as possible new approaches to the drug modulation of the pain epigenome.

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