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Home » Managing pain » Chronic pain research is “desperately underfunded”

Dr Bernhard Frank

Consultant in Pain Medicine, The Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust, Liverpool

Incidence of chronic pain is rising, yet not enough treatments are available. In this underfunded field, more translational research is urgently needed.

When Dr Bernhard Frank started work in the field of pain research two decades ago, the incidence of chronic non-malignant pain affected around five to 10% of the adult population. Now it affects around 20%.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t many medications that are licensed to treat chronic pain conditions,” he says. “In fact, there hasn’t been a breakthrough treatment for chronic pain in the last 15 to 20 years, and there’s a huge need for one. You only have to look at the over-prescribing of opioids to realise that chronic pain is a big problem.”

More translational research is therefore required to improve treatment options, says Dr Frank, Consultant in Pain Medicine at The Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool. The trouble is, the area of pain research is desperately underfunded, and many drug companies have lost interest in developing pain medication after experiencing negative outcomes in expensive phase 3 trials.

Many drug companies have lost interest in developing pain medication after experiencing negative outcomes in expensive phase 3 trials.

“As an academic field, pain medicine is just not a major topic compared to, say, cardiology,” he admits. “Also, there aren’t many pain specialists on the committees that decide on funding applications. It’s therefore harder for them to make an informed decision on an obscure area of research such as chronic pain.”

New ways of funding pain relief research

There are, however, two developments that give Dr Frank some cause for optimism. The first is the Advanced Pain Discovery Platform, a potentially game-changing £24 million initiative to deliver pain research. It’s funded through the Government’s Strategic Priorities Fund and delivered in partnership through the Medical Research Council (MRC) and other stakeholders. “It will be interesting to see what this delivers in terms of better translational research,” he says. “Although, really, £24million is just a drop in the ocean.”

Then there’s the crowdfunding phenomenon. “This is something we’re looking at doing, although it’s in its early stages,” he says. “Rather than applying for a five-year project grant, crowdfunding will allow researchers to complete their work step by step. Then they might at least have something to show would-be donors to demonstrate that their science is on the right trajectory. It could be the way to finance pain relief projects in the future.”

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