BIDDEFORD, Maine — Most treatments for cancer pain come with side effects nearly as intolerable as the cancer pain. For University of New England associate professor Tamara King, the opioids prescribed to her late grandmother took such a toll on her mind she no longer recognized her own family members.
King, described by the university as an internationally known pain researcher, is engaged in groundbreaking work she hopes will prevent future cancer patients from having to choose between alleviating pain and preserving mental acuity.
In addition to the cognitive side effects, commonly prescribed opioids can trigger nausea and constipation, King said. The alternative for patients battling cancer can be deep pain pulsing from their bones, where tumors often spread after they’ve become established in an individual’s breast, lung or prostate.
“It’s one of the most feared and disruptive symptoms patients experience,” said King, an associate professor of biomedical sciences at UNE’s College of Osteopathic Medicine and Center for Excellence in the Neurosciences.
King has been awarded a two-year grant worth nearly $140,000 by the Maine Cancer Foundation to continue work developing an antibody that could target the interleukin-6 — or IL-6 — molecules responsible in large part for the bone pain felt during cancer and render them inactive.
King said the antibody is being developed to control pain sensations in cancer patients, but UNE researchers may discover the drug diminishes or blocks the spread of cancer as well.
“We can look at disease progression as well,” she said. “We can definitely find something directly relating to the patient [pain], but we might find something more.”
King said breast, lung and prostate cancer do not always cause pain initially, so many patients don’t realize they have the disease until it has spread to the bones, where it is more painful — and dangerously further along.
“You might go in with a shoulder ache and learn that not only do you have cancer, but that it’s metastasized,” she said. “In many of those cases, it’s not curable at that point, so we’re talking about palliative care.”
If early studies on laboratory rats prove successful, King said the resultant drug would be moved quickly through to clinical trials on humans, because the human antibody in question already is used to combat pain in rheumatoid arthritis patients.
The current phase of research intends to prove the antibody also has a positive impact on cancer pain, which has a very different underlying source.
“The core of what we’re trying to do in the lab is alleviate pain,” she said.