Washington University scholars receive $11.7 million NIH grant for pain research
Researchers at Washington University received an 11.7 million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study and treat pain, along with reducing opioid use.
The grant was given to the school for research in human genes and nerve cells. The goal of the research is to better understand how cells transmit pain.
Dr. Robert Gereau, director of the Washington University Pain Center, explained the general goal of the initiative, which is called the Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) initiative.
“The NIH initiative was launched to address the kind of parallel crises of opioid-related overdose deaths and chronic pain,” Gereau said. “Part of how the opioid crisis started was [a] diversion of opioids that were being ostensibly distributed for the treatment of chronic pain. So, the goal of the HEAL initiative is to have a whole bunch of different programs that address these problems, create new treatments for addiction, and prevent overdose deaths.”
Gereau leads the Integrated Research Center for Human Pain Tissues (INTERCEPT), which is focusing on how different cell types and genes transmit pain signals, especially in relation to chronic pain. The research center is made up of three groups, all focusing on pain treatment.
Gereau also said there were many students who are helping with the initiative, including fifth-year Neuroscience PhD student, Jiwon Yi.
Yi said she pursued a bachelor’s at Pomona College and a master’s at the University of Cambridge. While at Cambridge, she said someone recommended that she looked into Washington University for graduate school.
“I ended up choosing WashU for grad school,” Yi said. “There’s a great pain center and a strong collection of research labs that focus on pain. I thought that was unique about WashU.”
Yi said one of the strengths of the grant is that the researchers get to utilize human tissue rather than exclusively using rodents.
“We use human tissue to validate what we find in rodents, and then we bring that to clinics if we think it is going to be useful,” Yi said. “We can go directly from rodent trials to human trials, which is useful for not failing in clinical trials.”
Yi described her work as creating an “atlas” for pain treatment.
“I would call it an atlas. It could be publicly available and look at things like gene expression or electrophysiological properties,” Yi said. “Other groups around the world that are looking at doing pain research and looking at the peripheral nervous system can then access that atlas, and also use it as a tool to inform their research.”
David Perlmutter, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine at Washington University, described the relationship between NIH grants and the University as something similar to other top research universities.
“Washington University’s medical school, like most top research-intensive medical schools, has relied on NIH grants for its research activities since that became the standard way to get funding after World War II,” Perlmutter said. “It’s always been a part of the medical research culture at top universities.”
Perlmutter explained that the NIH is a good metric of how competitive a university’s research and science is. Along with funding the actual grant and administration, NIH grants also typically fund research infrastructure.
Yi said she has had a good experience working on the project.
“For a lot of people that are doing pain research, an end goal is to find new targets and new therapies that can be used to treat pain without being addictive or having adverse consequences,” Yi said. “And direct human tissue is a great platform that speeds up the process — it bridges the gap of preclinical research to rodent research to clinical research.”
In terms of broader research, Perlmutter stressed that grants are not the main reason why the school strives to be so competitive in terms of medical advancement.
“The NIH grants are not the reason that we do research; the reason we do research is to advance knowledge and improve healthcare,” Perlmutter said. “The NIH funding makes that possible and lets us do more of it. It’s a metric of having great science.”
In regards to opioid treatments and chronic pain treatment in general, Gereau is hopeful that new solutions will reduce reliance on opioids.
“I hope that we come up with new medicines that don’t have the same potential abuse liability,” Gereau said. “People can have effective pain treatment without the risk of becoming dependent [on the medicine].”