New non-paralytic botulinum molecules for the control of pain

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Biomedical Science


In both animals and humans life events such as accidents or surgical interventions can lead to uncontrollable pain that can persist long after the original injury. This is chronic pain, the treatment of which is yet to be resolved - 19% of adult Europeans suffer from chronic pain of moderate to severe intensity; less than 60% receive adequate pain relief. New treatments are required but to develop these requires new therapeutic approaches and a better understanding of what goes wrong in the pain pathways resulting in uncontrollable pain.

Using the results of our recent research on Botulinum molecules, together with our existing knowledge of pain mechanisms, we will selectively silence pain signals both in pain fibers from the skin and other body tissues as well as in specific nerve cells in the spinal cord. Botulinum molecule is a protein and neurotoxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Botulinum molecule can cause flaccid neuromuscular paralysis, a serious and life-threatening illness in humans and animals. Popularly known by one of its trade names, Botox, it is used for various cosmetic and medical procedures. However we have found a way to separate the paralysing effects of the botulinum molecule from its silencing effects on other neurons. By using this new synthetic chemistry we will target and silence specific populations of neurons reversibly and alleviate chronic pain states.

The experiments outlined in this application will allow us to move rapidly towards the clinic and to apply these new Botulinum derivatives to different types of chronic pain. For example it is possible to imagine that a single injection of one of our Botulinum constructs into a painful arthritic joint or over the spinal cord of a patient with bone cancer pain would ameliorate pain without generating numbness or paralysis.

Technical Summary

We have utilized the power of botulinum-mediated neuronal silencing and retargeted the botulinum molecule away from neuromuscular junction but retaining its actions on specific peripheral and central neuronal populations. We recently developed a new protein-linking approach that allows design of re-targeted versions of botulinum neurotoxins thereby opening a way towards meeting the need for acute reversible neuronal silencing. Specifically, the botulinum molecule was split into two halves that were expressed in E.coli as innocuous recombinant parts. Following purification, the two halves were linked together within 30 min. The re-assembled botulinum molecule exhibited the same efficacy on central neurons and brain slices as the native botulinum neurotoxin but had significantly reduced paralytic activity. Our results suggest that the new botulinum versions can provide a unique tool in probing CNS functions and blocking excessive neuronal activity in chronic pain conditions. We propose to fully evaluate the non-paralytic botulinum molecules in various pain models and develop new neuropeptide receptor-directed versions for dissecting neuronal circuits responsible for generation and maintenance of chronic pain. We will use synthetic chemistry to derive new molecules, in vitro tissue culture screens for selective uptake of conjugates coupled with immunohistochemical identification of different types of neurons and assays to measure release of neuropeptides. We will then translate this information to inflammatory and neuropathic pain models and record efficacy after peripheral or central application of botulinum constructs using behavioural analysis of mechanical and thermal sensitivity.

Planned Impact

Despite considerable progress in our understanding of pain mechanisms, chronic pain has remained an area of considerable unmet medical need. A recent survey revealed that one in five people suffers from chronic pain in Europe and that the pain had a serious impact on their working and social lives. Currently only around 40% of chronic pain patients get reasonable treatment benefit implying that a large number of people will experience a lifetime of debilitating pain. There is therefore a pressing need for better pain killing medicines to manage chronic pain. There are a number of new approaches to controlling pain derived from experimental work on animals and humans. The approach used here centers on the synthesis of new non-paralyzing Botulinum constructs that target specific pain signalling neurons either within the central nervous system or periferally without having a paralyzing effect on muscles. We believe that these constructs will form the basis for a new range of therapeutics that will give rapid, reversible pain relief without killing neurons and also will help us to investigate the underlying causes of chronic pain states.


10 25 50
Description MRC Case PhD studentship
Amount £90,000 (GBP)
Organisation Medical Research Council (MRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
End 10/2021
Description Bitox in the treatment of migraine 
Organisation King's College London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Following the successful evaluation of Bitox in neuropathic pain, we started collaboration with Dr Anna Andreou who specialises in migraine treatment.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Anna Andreou who specialises in migraine treatment demonstrated that Bitox exhibits more efficacy in controlling mechanichal hypersensitivity in a rat model of migraine.
Impact We received an award from Migraine Research Foundation USA to continue the Bitox investigation in migraine treatment. We also are applying for a full MRC grant to investigate the Bitox in migraine treatment.
Start Year 2015
Description Sheffield Pain Network 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Sheffield Pain Network was organised with the help of Medical School at the University of Sheffield. In May 2016 conference was held with participation of Ely Lilly pharma company. Collaboration established since then with Ely Lilly and an MRC Case studentship was awarded.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016