$11.3M NIH grant funds national project to investigate molecular origins of pain

By The Science Advisory Board staff writers

October 26, 2022 -- A new national project will investigate the origins of human pain at the cellular and molecular level. A research team will be led by the University of Texas at Dallas neuroscience professor Ted Price, PhD, whose five-year, $11.3 million grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke -- part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) -- will launch the Human Nociceptor and Spinal Cord Molecular Signature Center.

The researchers previously used human dorsal root ganglia (DRG) -- specialized nerve cells at the base of the spine -- to investigate chronic pain mechanisms. The DRG cells' transcriptome revealed unique features of the human nervous system at the neuron level, explaining why pain relief in animals rarely works in people.

Organ donor DRG tissue will allow researchers to characterize peripheral nervous system neurons and learn how nociceptors on nerve cells are activated during chronic pain. The DRG samples will also shed light on how the spinal cord relays pain signals received from nociceptors to the brain -- information that may aid in finding better treatments for chronic pain.

A project currently underway focuses on lower back pain -- a costly and disabling form of chronic pain impossible to model in animals that don't walk upright. Researchers are using DRG from back surgery patients to understand the mechanisms behind lower back pain.

They hope the new center will empower pain researchers worldwide to find new approaches to treating pain, including non-opioid therapeutics that can stop pain at its source.

"My hope is that in the next five years, we will have very detailed molecular information about the human peripheral nervous system -- how it changes with age, and hopefully, how it changes with chronic pain," said Price.

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