Some people will never feel pain in their lives, and the underlying genetic cause is being investigated by drugs companies that hope to develop a new type of painkiller.
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There are fewer than a hundred people in the world with this insensitivity to pain, and while it sounds like bliss it is actually very dangerous for those carrying the rare genotype. It means they can miss severe illnesses such as appendicitis, or not realise when they are too close to an object burning their skin.
But when it comes to using the genetic information to create more effective painkillers than we currently have access to, they hold great promise. Painkillers represent one of the most lucrative markets in the drugs industry, bringing in an estimated $18bn a year, according to Bloomberg.
Pharmaceutical companies like Amgen and Genentech are pumping money into researching how exactly the disorder manifests, aware of the billions that could be made from it.
People with the rare condition are “a gift from nature,” according to Andreas Grauer, a head of global development at Amgen. “It is our obligation to turn it into something useful.”
In cases researched so far, it appears to be caused by a combination of two genes, one from each parent, which on their own are benign but together are harmful.
The gene responsible was first discovered over 10 years ago by a small Canadian firm called Xenon Pharmaceuticals. By studying families sharing the pain-free trait, they narrowed it down to a gene that regulates sodium ion channel called Nav 1.7. Having very few employees, Xenon turned to the larger company Genentech for help.
“The beauty of the phenotype is that you’re largely normal,” said Morgan Sheng, Genentech’s vice president for neuroscience. “You want to just prevent pain and not cause a bunch of other problems.”