Campus News

Researchers: Lithium may ease nerve pain caused by chemotherapy

Taxol, generically called paclitaxel, is a widely used drug in chemotherapy treatments. It is used to treat cancer in the lungs, ovaries and breasts, but it also can cause severe neuropathic pain and sensory dysfunction.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that 30 to 40 percent of cancer patients treated with chemotherapy experience nerve pain. This pain can last for years and affect a patient’s ability to walk and write.

However, researchers in UGA’s College of Pharmacy have discovered that lithium reduces the neuropathic pain accompanying the use of Taxol.

“Neuropathic pain caused by the chemotherapy drug Taxol is a clinical challenge both to the doctor and the patient with the cancer because currently there is no effective treatment for this type of pain,” said Han-Rong Weng, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences in the pharmacy college.

Weng and his team are the first group of researchers to discover that lithium, which commonly is used to treat depression and other mental illnesses, can reduce and prevent Taxol-induced neuropathic pain.

Using healthy, adult-male, Sprague-Dawley rats, Weng tested the effects of treating them with lithium before administering Taxol, to reduce nerve pain. After 10 days, the rats were tested for their mechanical and thermal sensitivity to determine the presence of sensory nerve pain.

Over this period of time, the rats pre-treated with lithium experienced less pain and ultimately no pain, according to the results, which are available in the online version of Neuroscience.

Weng and his team also discovered one way lithium prevents nerve pain caused by Taxol. The drug increases the presence of an enzyme that leads to nerve inflammation around the spinal cord. If uncontrolled, this inflammation can lead to pathological pain.

Lithium blocks that activity, thus preventing that pain.

Contributing authors on this paper include Mei Gao and Xisheng Yan, both of whom are postdoctoral associates in the College of Pharmacy.