The molecular explanation for how a woman feels no pain and heals quickly. Here are some superpowers we really wish we had.
Jo Cameron is a woman who does not feel pain, thanks to rare mutations. She also experiences less anxiety or fear than other people. A study of the molecular basis of her condition could have medical benefits for the rest of us.
Not feeling pain may sound wonderful, but we need the warnings that pain provides. Nerve injuries run the risk of untreated cuts becoming septic. Injured limbs need a chance to heal, rather than being used normally, as they would be if we couldn’t feel pain.
The woman who doesn’t feel pain
However, for Cameron, her lack of pain sensitivity comes with other changes that have spared her from these effects. It took geneticists six years to identify the gene responsible for Cameron’s unusual attributes. Now, a new study follows suit, explaining how Cameron’s unusual genetics express themselves at the molecular level.
Cameron’s condition is so unusual because two mutations work in combination, which has made it more difficult to replicate in the lab. However, by using CRISPR-Cas9 to modify cell lines, researchers at University College London were able to recreate the effect on other genes and see how their expression changed.
Not all of the effects of Cameron’s unusual genes are positive. She suffers from apparently connected mild memory deficits and has experienced “significant” nausea and vomiting in response to morphine after surgery. Her saliva also dissolved dental substances with exceptional speed.
Cameron’s mutations are on the FAAH and FAAH-OUT genes, so it’s not surprising that her FAAH enzyme is much less active than most people. However, the effects go much further. The authors found 797 genes that are up-regulated by these mutations and 348 that are down-regulated.
Perhaps most important is the increased activity of the WNT16 gene, known to be associated with bone regeneration, which appears to be the key to Cameron’s wound-healing powers. Changes in the mood-regulating gene BDNF may explain her lack of fear or anxiety. Additionally, the unusual activity of the ACKR3 gene, which regulates opioid levels, could be why Cameron doesn’t need painkillers — he always makes his own painkillers.
Cameron, 66, has undergone hip and hand operations. She reported little pain, both before and after the surgeries. It was then that she discovered that she suffered many burns and cuts without pain and healed so quickly that she rarely needed medical attention.
Geneticists eventually identified a mutation in the FAAH-OUT region of Cameron’s genome, previously thought to be part of the junk DNA. This region was found to play a role in mediating FAAH gene expression.
Cameron has mutations in both the FAAH-OUT region and the FAAH gene itself. Her version of the FAAH gene exists in a minority of the population, but is still quite common. Her FAAH-OUT mutation is much rarer, and the combination has never been seen before. Then again, given how long it took to identify Cameron’s condition, it’s certainly possible that other people are similarly benefiting from it unknowingly.
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