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Tick saliva could provide pain relief to humans

New research suggests that a protein found in the saliva of the brown-ear tick, Rhipicephalus appendiculatus, could benefit people. The saliva contains a protein called Votucalis, which is known to alleviate pain and itching in mice. 

Ticks secrete Votucalis while feeding, which helps prevent the host from knowing they are being parasitized. One of the most anticipated uses for the protein is pain management, specifically chronic pain management. 

“Persistent or chronic pain is a huge global health challenge, which affects over 20 percent of the population,” said study co-author Dr. Paul Chazot of Durham University. “It is the single biggest reason that people in the UK visit their doctor and it is recognised as a priority disease by the World Health Organization.”

Researchers are especially excited to find an alternative pain medicine considering the current opioid situation. Due to the overuse and abuse of opioids, The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has recommended that opioid and gabapentinoid medications not be prescribed to new patients unless they are being treated for cancer. 

These new recommendations mean that many people are living with chronic pain and have little recourse. However, since Votucalis is not as addictive as opioids and is less likely to cause adverse reactions, those suffering from back pain, arthritis, and sciatica, may soon have an effective alternative. 

“These are conditions that bring a huge amount of misery, and current medication displays limited efficacy, and can also often be detrimental to patients,” said study co-author Dr. Ilona Obara.

Votucalis has more uses than chronic pain. Since it also has been shown to alleviate itching in mice, it has potential pharmaceutical applications for treating atopic dermatitis and psoriasis.

Although Votucalis has been used to treat conjunctivitis and other diseases in humans, clinical testing is still needed to design a way to deliver the drug directly to the site of pain and itch. Votucalis is a pipeline drug for Akari Therapeutics Plc, so scientists are still performing tests to determine its safety and effectiveness. 

Still, Dr. Obara feels that there is potential for Votucalis to be developed into a drug to tackle chronic pain and itching. If so, tiny ticks will have an enormous impact on human quality of life. 

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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