Understanding and consequently treating neuropathic pain effectively is a challenge for modern medicine, as unlike inflammation, which can be controlled relatively well, chronic pain due to nerve injury is refractory to most current therapeutics. Here we define a target pathway for a new class of analgesics, tetrahydrobiopterin (BH4) synthesis and metabolism. BH4 is an essential co-factor in the synthesis of serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine and nitric oxide and as a result, its availability influences many systems, including neurons. Following peripheral nerve damage, levels of BH4 are dramatically increased in sensory neurons, consequently this has a profound effect on the physiology of these cells, causing increased activity and pain hypersensitivity. These changes are principally due to the upregulation of the rate limiting enzyme for BH4 synthesis GTP Cyclohydrolase 1 (GCH1). A GCH1 pain-protective haplotype which decreases pain levels in a variety of settings, by reducing the levels of endogenous activation of this enzyme, has been characterized in humans. Here we define the control of BH4 homeostasis and discuss the consequences of large perturbations within this system, both negatively via genetic mutations and after pathological increases in the production of this cofactor that result in chronic pain. We explain the nature of the GCH1 reduced-function haplotype and set out the potential for a ‘ BH4 blocking’ drug as a novel analgesic.
Keywords: Genetic association, dorsal root ganglia, SPR, NO, dorsal horn, neuropathic pain, analgesics, tetrahydrobiopterin, serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, pain hypersensitivity, limiting enzyme, Cyclohydrolase 1, high-density microarrays