USask PhD student Joseph Neapetung. (Photo: Submitted)
USask PhD student Joseph Neapetung. (Photo: Submitted)

USask researcher targets pain relief from diabetic neuropathy

Diabetes affects about three million Canadians, with the prevalence increasing yearly. About half of those living with diabetes experience nerve pain and sensory issues—called diabetic neuropathy—ranging from mildly uncomfortable to severely debilitating.

University of Saskatchewan (USask) College of Medicine PhD student Joseph Neapetung (BSc'19) is focusing his research on investigating the cellular mechanisms behind what causes this pain by examining a specific calcium channel in neurons that plays a role in pain sensations.

Although diabetic neuropathy is common, current therapies available to treat it often aren’t effective due to lack of understanding of the condition itself, said Neapetung.

“Diabetic neuropathy is the most common complication of diabetes affecting fifty per cent of patients,” said Neapetung. “Sensory neuropathy can lead to a loss of sensation and/or increased sensitivity to pain in the hands and feet, and it has a severe impact on the quality of life of patients.”

Under the supervision of associate professor Dr. Veronica Campanucci (PhD), Neapetung has been conducting behavioural and electrophysiological experiments. By recording electrical activity, Neapetung was able to measure the levels of nerve cell activation required to cause minimal nerve sensation and was then able to analyze how that level differs in persons living with diabetes versus those who aren’t.

“It has been known for decades that neuropathy becomes more serious with the length of diabetes, but so far my work has found that there are very specific changes in sensory neurons that occur very early in diabetes, which is usually overlooked,” said Neapetung.

“What is unique about this research is that it focuses on the early stages of diabetes rather than the long-term stages of diabetes. Many studies have been done on the calcium channel we are interested in, but most, if not all, research has been done on long-term diabetes.”

The researchers hope that the study findings can be used to develop more effective treatments and strategies that could treat or prevent this painful disorder.

“Understanding the mechanisms involved in the onset of this condition may even prevent some individuals progressing into amputation of the lower extremities due to complications that arise from this type of neuropathy,” Neapetung said.

The next steps will be to determine which proteins contribute to pain-related calcium channel malfunction and perform imaging experiments that will allow observing entire nerve cell networks responsible for pain sensations, he said.

“My career plans include applying to the College of Medicine in hopes of becoming a physician to help people manage painful conditions such as diabetic sensory neuropathy,” said Neapetung. “The birth of my son really drove me forward and continues to do so.”

The research was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada, the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, and the Office of the Vice-Dean Research in the College of Medicine.

This article first ran as part of the 2022 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the USask Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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