Jo Cameron, a 71-year-old Scottish woman, has lived all her life without the sensation of physical pain. Although what you might think at first glance, living without feeling pain comes with its own challenges and problems. For instance, the woman has suffered numerous burns and cuts, which often inflicted more damage than they should have. Sometimes, Cameron would realize her skin was burning only after she smelled fumes coming out of her flesh. But luckily Cameron possesses another superman trait: she heals quickly and often with very little or no scarring at all. In a new study, scientists have found that these traits are due to a newly identified genetic mutation — one that could pave the way for new treatments.
Cameron’s extraordinary abilities first came to doctors’ attention when, only a few years ago, she sought treatment for a hip injury. Her hip proved to have severe arthritis and required replacing. Immediately doctors knew something was off since Cameron’s disease should have caused her immense discomfort, which wasn’t the case. After two painless surgeries, doctors decided they should investigate more closely this unique patient.
“We had banter before theatre when I guaranteed I wouldn’t need painkillers,” the woman told BBC News, recounting the moment her doctors couldn’t believe she wouldn’t need painkillers after her surgery.
“When he found I hadn’t had any, he checked my medical history and found I had never asked for painkillers.”
Doctors at Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, ran some tests on her finding that the woman had almost no pain response. She could even eat Scotch bonnet chillis, which are famous for being extremely hot, without so much as flinching.
Cameron was then referred to experts in pain genetics at the University College London and the University of Oxford who identified two mutations that may be linked to her pain sensitivity and healing ability. One is a mutation that affects a gene called FAAH (Fatty Acid Amide Hydrolase), which plays a major role in regulating the body’s endocannabinoid system — a family of endogenous ligands, receptors, and enzymes that are important in pain, memory, and mood. The endocannabinoid system is also the target of compounds in cannabis which provoke a ‘high’ or ‘buzz’ once they are ingested.
The second mutation targets a gene which previously had no apparent useful purpose. The new research, however, shows that this mutation switches the FAAH gene on or off. In the case of Cameron, the gene’s activity is switched off, the authors reported in the British Journal of Anaesthesia.
These mutations may explain why Cameron doesn’t feel physical pain or heals so quickly. What’s more, there may also be some psychological effects. For instance, Cameron scored zero on clinical tests for anxiety and depression. She says she never panics or loses her cool — not even when she was in a recent car accident.
But despite her rare condition, Cameron says that she would have preferred to feel pain.
“Pain is there for a reason, it warns you – you hear alarm bells.”
“It would be nice to have warning when something’s wrong – I didn’t know my hip was gone until it was really gone, I physically couldn’t walk with my arthritis.”
Scientists hope to translate the findings into novel drugs that annihilate the pain response. Right now, half of the patients recovering from surgery still experience pain despite taking strong painkillers. In the future, researchers hope to study other people with the same kind of mutations. In 2013, ZME Science wrote about a similar case — that of Ashlyn Blocker, a normal looking American teenager from a small town called Patterson, GA.
“People with rare insensitivity to pain can be valuable to medical research as we learn how their genetic mutations impact how they experience pain, so we would encourage anyone who does not experience pain to come forward,” Dr. James Cox, of UCL, told the BBC.
“We hope that with time, our findings might contribute to clinical research for post-operative pain and anxiety, and potentially chronic pain, PTSD and wound healing.”