Home » Clinical Trials » Can naturally occurring endocannabinoids be targeted to treat back pain?

Professor David Finn (picture above, left)

Professor of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, University of Galway

Mary Hopkins (pictured above, right)

PhD student, University of Galway

A research team is conducting a study to examine whether the human body’s cannabis-like signalling molecules could lead to advances in back pain treatments.

With a quarter of visits to GPs in Ireland being for back pain, the condition is a huge burden for sufferers and health providers. Moreover, treatment options are still not consistently effective, according to researchers.

Exploring endocannabinoids for back pain 

A team connected to the Institute for Clinical Trials at the University of Galway is investigating a new option focusing on endocannabinoids — the body’s own cannabis-like signalling molecules — as a potential treatment. The study aims to lead to development of novel endocannabinoid-related biomarkers and therapeutics. 

Principal Investigator David Finn, Professor and Head of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at University of Galway and Co-Director of the institution’s Centre for Pain Research, explains that 650 million people globally currently suffer from back pain, and that could hit 843 million by 2050. “There are multiple reasons why someone can develop back pain,” he continues. “That can be from stress, wear and tear, damage, injury or organic causes including diseases such as cancer.” 

The research focuses on intervertebral
disc injury or degeneration, which accounts
for 25–40% of all low back pain.

Disadvantages of current treatments 

The research focuses on intervertebral disc injury or degeneration, which accounts for 25–40% of all low back pain. Finn says available treatments only work effectively in some patients, and current drugs can have side effects or become addictive, while surgical treatments, like spinal fusion, are not always successful. 

“It is a major unmet clinical need,” he adds. “We need to better understand the condition and the neurobiology of low back pain and be able to better predict, through research, who will transition from acute short-term low back pain — which might last a few days — to chronic back pain, which lasts months or years.” 

What the study hopes to find 

Mary Hopkins, a fourth-year Ph.D. student at University of Galway conducting the research, says: “We know these signalling molecules are involved in pain relief and can be dysregulated in certain types of chronic pain, so the study aims to find out whether endocannabinoids can be potential biomarkers for diagnosis and targets for treatment of this pain.” 

The study, conducted with the Clinical Research Facility and Institute for Clinical Trials at the University, is recruiting patients who have recent acute lower back pain and those with chronic low back pain for more than three months.

It will see if endocannabinoid measures in the patient’s blood correlate with their pain scores, assess if the endocannabinoids can predict who might develop chronic pain — and whether endocannabinoids are viable pharmacological targets when their levels are modulated to achieve pain relief. 

*The research is funded by the Irish Research Council. Anyone interested in the research or participating in the study can contact Mary Hopkins at: [email protected] 

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