New data hub and research into chronic pain

The Medical Research Council (MRC) is leading a £16 million investment in research consortia and a data hub to advance chronic pain treatments.


MRC is supported by Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council and partners with Versus Arthritis, Health Data Research UK (HDR UK) and Eli Lilly.

The hub and consortia will combine as part of a £24 million initiative to establish an Advanced Pain Discovery Platform (APDP), supported by the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund.

Major unmet health challenge

Chronic pain is a major unmet global public health challenge that causes significant disability through conditions such as fibromyalgia, back pain, headaches and migraines.

It is also a debilitating feature of long-term conditions including arthritis, cancer, diabetes and dementia.

To help address this challenge and improve the lives of people affected by pain conditions, better understanding of the mechanisms of pain and improved treatments are needed.

Research on a national scale

Four multidisciplinary and multi-institutional consortia, funded by UKRI and Versus Arthritis and totalling £14 million, will break through the complexity of pain by establishing a platform of national scale, delivering discovery and early translational science.

The APDP will provide new knowledge about the biological, psychological and social mechanisms which maintain and explain the lived experience of pain. It will:

  • uncover shared mechanisms

  • tackle inconsistencies in diagnosis and treatment

  • provide new pain biomarkers

  • identify and validate new therapeutic interventions.

Multidisciplinary consortia

Multidisciplinary consortia will connect researchers across the breadth of biomedical, social, informatics and data sciences, driving new collaborations and embracing access to cutting edge technologies and diverse information sources, bringing together world-leading scientific expertise, people with chronic pain, and healthy volunteers.

The consortia will bring together leadership, infrastructure, capability, tools and resources to lay the foundation of an enduring programme that will underpin a broader portfolio of pain research supported by UKRI, Versus Arthritis and others.

The funded proposals include:

  • PAINSTORM, led by Professor David Bennett, University of Oxford, researching neuropathic pain caused by damage to the sensory nervous system through conditions such as diabetes, chemotherapy and HIV

  • Consortium Against Pain in Equality (CAPE), led by Professor Tim Hales, University of Dundee, researching the impact of adverse childhood experiences on chronic pain and responses to treatment

  • ADVANTAGE*, led by Professor Geoff Woods, University of Cambridge, researching chronic pain experienced by people with visceral diseases, such as endometriosis, colitis and kidney disease( details below)

  • Psychosocial mechanisms of chronic pain, led by Professor Ed Keogh, University of Bath, researching how psychological and social factors, such as thoughts and feelings, personal relationships, and lifestyle, can affect and define chronic pain.

Tackling long-term research challenges

‘Alleviate – The APDP Pain Research Data Hub’ is a £2 million investment led by Professor Emily Jefferson, University of Dundee and supported by UKRI, Versus Arthritis, and Health Data Research UK.

Guided by leading experts in pain research in partnership with the NHS, APDP consortia, people with lived experience of chronic pain and industry, the hub will:

  • bring together, curate and improve existing data sets that are valuable to the chronic pain research community

  • maximise the research potential of all data and results generated from across the APDP investments, including the large consortia and research programme

  • reveal new and improved treatments across diverse chronic and debilitating pain conditions.

The hub will tackle the long-term research challenges in understanding the complexity and unpredictability of pain by:

  • providing a key resource for the national and international pain communities, that will encourage sustainability for the assembled pain research community

  • synergising research across existing data hubs whilst bringing in innovative research from other domains which will significantly enhance scientific knowledge

  • making available high quality, chronic pain-focused research datasets to a broader reach of UK stakeholders.

World class infrastructure

This will ensure a world class health and research pain data infrastructure and services and drive multi-disciplinary collaboration in pain research.

Alleviate joins an established network of Health Data Research Hubs, led by HDR UK and funded through UKRI’s Industry Strategy Challenge Fund, which aim to maximise insights and innovations from health data.

These original hubs have made significant impacts in data improvement and have supported the research response to COVID-19 in areas including infection rates, vaccine rollout, and understanding the impact of COVID-19 on specific disease areas.

The pain hub, together with a recently announced new hub focused on mental health (also funded by MRC), will benefit from utilising the HDR UK Innovation Gateway that currently makes over 600 datasets findable for researchers.

It will also participate in the UK Health Data Research Alliance which brings together leading health, care and research organisations united to establish best practice around the ethical use of UK health data for research and innovation at scale.

Transforming understanding of chronic pain

David Walsh, APDP Director, said: “I am thrilled by the depth and breadth of engagement by the UK’s world-leading academia and commercial partners to establish the new Advanced Pain Discovery Platform. Our multidisciplinary consortia and data hub awards reflect an ambitious vision to transform understanding of chronic pain mechanisms across a wide range of clinical conditions; a vision of a world ultimately without the unnecessary distress and disability caused by chronic pain.

“I am confident that the APDP will make major contributions to towards this goal even over the next 4 years, but that is not to underestimate the difficulty of the task in hand. These first awards form the nucleus of our APDP, and will be the magnet to attract additional partners who will synergise and tackle other chronic painful conditions, other pain mechanisms and other aspects of chronic pain’s impact on individuals and society. Chronic pain is currently the blight of society, but one we, together, are on a transformational threshold.”

* Professor Geoff Woods, University of Cambridge (MR/W002426/1, 48 months, £4.1 million)

    MICA: ADVANTAGE visceral pain consortium: Advanced Discovery of Visceral
    Analgesics via Neuroimmune Targets and the Genetics of Extreme human phenotype
    Principal Investigator Professor Geoff Woods (University of Cambridge)
    Co-Investigator Dr Michael Lee (University of Cambridge)
    Co-Investigator Professor George Malliaras (University of Cambridge)
    Co-Investigator Dr Ewan Smith (University of Cambridge)
    Co-Investigator Dr David Andersson (King’s College London)
    Co-Investigator Dr Franziska Denk (King’s College London)
    Co-Investigator Dr Amanda Williams (University College London)
    Co-Investigator Professor Andrew Horne (University of Edinburgh)
    Co-Investigator Dr Athanasios Tsanas (University of Edinburgh)
    Co-Investigator Professor Philippa Saunders (University of Edinburgh)


The ADVANTAGE consortium aims to improve how we treat people with visceral diseases, such as endometriosis, colitis and kidney disease, focusing on their pain rather than just their underlying disease.

One in 20 individuals in the UK are disabled by visceral pain – approximately as many people as live in the entire country of Wales. The condition is a terrible burden for those who suffer from it: causing pain not only during the most intimate moments of their lives, but also frequently triggering unpredictable episodes of pain “flares” that can need hospital admission.

It is therefore surprising and disappointing how little we know about visceral pain; no one has systematically studied how the pain connects to the underlying visceral disease, how it relates to other health problems, and how it affects people’s psychological wellbeing. Our consortium will set up a UK-wide database of visceral pain patients to address these questions. We will also study those nerves connecting inner organs to the brain to ultimately cause pain, as their exact identity is unknown. The database and biological knowledge collected will enable us to:

  •     answer why people with the same visceral disease can have completely different pain experiences, including flares
  •     start looking for painkillers and therapies specifically designed for visceral pain, which although they are desperately needed do not currently exist.

Our work will be divided into various taskforces, each led by an internationally recognised expert clinician or scientist. All research will be enriched by input from patient and patient support organisations from start to finish.

Our visceral pain database will enrol individuals with pain originating from the bladder, gut, lung, kidney, pancreas, uterus and vagina, and in the pelvis. It will be built on existing hospital and GP records and will be future-proof, set up to grow and recall volunteers for additional studies. We will also work closely with similar pain consortia being set up across the UK.

We will look especially for people at the extremes: those with little pain despite clear disease, and those with severe pain despite few signs of disease. We will record their pain using standard self-report methods, but also explore other ways to capture their experience; for example, using automatic sensors to record activity and physiological changes throughout the day. To find out what causes severe pain in some people, we will study the genetic and immune systems of participants.

We will also examine differences between men and women, why certain conditions predominantly affect women, and the under-representation of women in some research areas, to make sure that any new treatments benefit everyone equally.

Our ultimate aim is to improve our understanding of visceral pain from the perspective of people living with the condition, so that the NHS can develop and offer patients more effective interventions and support to address the diverse nature of their symptoms and help improve their quality of life.

Full details of the other three projects can be found here

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