George Uhl thinks there's a lot of unnecessary hurting in the world and, unlike most people, he's in a position to do something about it.
Uhl has been studying mice to understand how to control pain. Mice, like people, have chemical triggers called mu receptors that run along the length of their nerve cells. Molecules released by the body in response to certain kinds of stress activate the receptors and inhibit pain signals traveling to the brain. To learn more about this process, Uhl cloned the gene for the mu receptors in mice and then deactivated it.
The genetically altered mice enabled Uhl, a neurologist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse and at Johns Hopkins, to decipher previously obscure details of how the body limits our physical discomfort. Some people have more mu receptors than others, possibly because of natural variations in the DNA sequence that switches on the anti-pain gene. That discovery could enable doctors to tailor drugs and doses to a person's precise genetic profile. "People can look forward to that information being used to match them and medicines better," says Uhl.