In 1992, Kalpna Gupta moved more than 7,000 miles from her hometown of New Delhi to conduct pain research at the University of Minnesota. That’s quite a sacrifice, but Gupta said it’s worth it to be part of one of the best pain research institutions the world has to offer.
“I came to Minnesota specifically to work on the research that I’m now doing here,” Gupta said. “This school has a lot to offer. It has a strong research base and we are close to number one in pain research. That is what’s very attractive about being here.”
Gupta is concerned about pain and how it impairs the quality of life for patients with sickle cell anemia, which is a genetic disease. The disease causes red blood cells to be crescent shaped instead of circular, which leads to the blockage of blood vessels. Consequently, oxygen-carrying blood fails to reach organs resulting in organ damage and immense pain.
People of several nationalities have sickle cell anemia, but it principally impacts those of African descent. The University of Minnesota has its own Sickle Cell Clinic that is centered on helping adults with the disease.
“Suffering is very high and it needs to be controlled” Gupta said. “Patients with sickle cell disease can suffer throughout their lives with pain.”
That’s a major reason why Gupta has been thinking outside the box to improve sickle cell disease treatment.
Right now, morphine and other opioids are used to help manage pain in sickle cell anemia patients. However, incorporating mice as test subjects, Gupta has discovered that opioids have some effects on the body that are undesirable.
“Using these mice we’ve found that opioids do have some undesired effects on the kidneys,” Gupta said. “A significant number of patients die because of complications to the kidney.”
In addition to damaging kidneys, Gupta pointed out that morphine has other latent effects such as addiction and tolerance.
Gupta is working to find drugs readily available that will help stave off pain without adverse effects.
Another objective she has is quantifying pain. Right now, doctors across the globe simply ask patients how much pain they have on a scale of one to ten and prescribe a given dose of morphine based on their response.
“The answer can vary from person to person,” Gupta said. “A seven in one person can be a five in another.”
Gupta and other University of Minnesota researchers have embarked on groundbreaking research in order to put a fixed value on pain. This could limit suffering for people that have pain, improve quality of life and increase their lifespan.
“What we need is an objective measure to say how much pain is there,” Gupta said. “Overall, we’re trying to see if we can make better use of available drugs such as Cannabis-based analgesics and then develop quantitative ways to measure pain.”