August 26, 2019
Derek Molliver, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical sciences, has been awarded a $1.84 million grant by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to investigate the transition from acute to chronic pain.
Chronic pain is difficult to treat and affects more than 50 million Americans per year, resulting in extraordinary personal and societal costs.
Deaths involving prescription opiate analgesics designed to treat chronic pain have almost quadrupled in the last 10 years.
Chronic pain involves different underlying mechanisms than those that cause acute pain, which creates a major clinical challenge to treatment. New treatment options will require a better understanding of those mechanisms.
Molliver and his colleagues will investigate how acute pain transitions into chronic pain. They will examine how several proteins work together in pain-sensing neurons to produce pain that can be resistant to currently available drugs, such as opiates.
The research may help to explain how someone can appear to recover completely from an initial injury but then have prolonged and severe pain from a second injury later in life.
The ultimate goal of the project is to improve our understanding of what causes chronic pain in order to develop more effective, non-addictive treatments.
“Sometimes people are on a drug and it works for a little while, but eventually it stops working and they’re left with nothing,” Molliver stated. “We’re looking for mechanisms that are unique to chronic pain that we can then target to develop new drugs.”
The $1.84 million grant will be awarded to Molliver over the next four years.
Benjamin Harrison, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical sciences, is a co-investigator on the research project. His experience is in proteomics, the study of how proteins interact to perform specific tasks.
The project will also establish a collaboration with Kristofer Rau, Ph.D., assistant professor at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Rau specializes in electrophysiology, which is the study of how neurons transmit electrical impulses.
“Chronic pain is a really tough nut to crack,” Molliver explained. “We’ve been developing some new tools in my laboratory to look at protein function in pain-sensing neurons, and we’re bringing in additional experts that we need to pursue this project. The idea is that by bringing together a number of researchers with diverse expertise in one place, we can make some novel discoveries.”