Rethinking Healthcare

How to make acupuncture a hundred times more effective

Posting in Technology

Scientists at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have co-opted traditional acupuncture techniques to provide longer term pain relief.

Mark J. Zylka, a neuroscience researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, admits he had never thought much of Chinese medicine. But when he needed a better delivery method for pain relief drugs, he came across some acupuncture research that caught his eye.

Traditional acupuncture needles can stimulate the release of nucleotides in our body that convert into adenosine, which makes us less sensitive to pain. Unfortunately, that break from hurt typically lasts just a few hours.

Zylka had been working with prostatic acid phosphatase (PAP), which also makes adenosine in the body. When injected into the spine, it can provide up to three days of relief from pain. But, spinal injections are invasive and have to happen in a hospital setting, making them impractical for anyone but those in excruciating pain.

Noticing the adenosine connection between acupuncture and PAP, Zylka wondered if he might be able to co-opt the ancient practice to deliver the protein. Zylka explains in a press release:

"We knew that PAP makes adenosine and lasts for days following spinal injection, so we wondered what would happen if we injected PAP into an acupuncture point? Can we mimic the pain relief that occurs with acupuncture, but have it last longer?"

His team injected PAP in typical acupuncture fashion behind the knee. Zylka found the method so successful it outlasts the pain relief of traditional acupuncture one hundred times over, providing up to six days of relief. It also lasts longer than a dose of anesthetic. He published his results today in the journal Molecular Pain.

So far Zylka's studies of PAP and acupuncture have all been in mice, so he needs to refine the technique for humans.  He calls the it "PAPupuncture", and hopes it can one day provide a less invasive way, longer-lasting treatment to replace traditional anesthesia.

Photo: Gemma Vittoria/Flickr

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure