Medical researchers win awards

(Edmonton) Three researchers in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry have been recognized for the important contributions they have made to ultimately help those who suffer from neuropathic pain, a type of chronic pain that affects an estimated one million Canadians.

Neuropathic pain happens when nerves become damaged and then send wrong signals to the brain to experience pain in a particular part of the body. People with multiple sclerosis, diabetes, phantom limb syndrome and spinal-cord injuries can experience this type of pain, as well as those with other conditions. Symptoms usually involve a sensation of burning, shooting or tingling.

Pfizer Canada handed out five monetary awards to outstanding Canadian researchers who are furthering the study of neuropathic pain. Two of those awards were given to the U of A: Peter Smith, a researcher in the Department of Pharmacology, and the team of Bradley Kerr, a researcher in the departments of anesthesiology and pain medicine and pharmacology, and Glen Baker, a researcher in the Department of Psychiatry. Each award is $150,000 over two years.

Smith, who also won this same award in 2008, is researching the effectiveness of combining two medications to better treat neuropathic pain. One drug, whose main ingredient comes from hot peppers, could be combined with a drug already used to treat neuropathic pain called pregabalin.

“The main idea is to combine pregabalin with another drug to make it work better. What has to happen is pregabalin has to get by neurons in order to have its effect. We are looking at combining this drug with capcisin, which is an active ingredient of hot peppers.

“One of the things capcisin does is open a specific part of a cell known as an ion channel. These channels open so wide, that they let more molecules of pregabalin in. So the idea is that by opening these ion channels wider, we can make more pregabalin go inside and therefore work better.”

Smith said there has been some discussion with his clinical colleagues to start using this drug combination in a cream form in a clinical trial in one to two years. Capcisin is typically put on the skin and initially causes acute, intense pain because it is re-damaging the damaged nerves. Patients getting the treatment are given a local anesthetic when the cream is applied. Preliminary results have shown that the administration of this hot-pepper drug can give chronic pain sufferers relief for about a month.

Meanwhile, Kerr and Baker are researching neuropathic pain in a variety of ways by examining potential new drugs to treat this type of chronic pain, and looking at how and why chronic pain is triggered in those with multiple sclerosis, who can experience chronic facial pain, muscle spasm pain and joint pain. About 50 per cent of those patients can experience chronic pain.

“We think [chronic pain] is a very important issue because in MS the issue of chronic pain has really been ignored from a basic research point of view for many, many years,” says Kerr. “It’s only been in the past 10 to 15 years that pain in patients with multiple sclerosis has come to be recognized, so we’re excited that we are shedding some light on a problem that was ignored in the past.”

Specifically, Kerr and Baker are looking at treatments that may be able to decrease the pain signals or messages that are sent from the spinal cord to the brain.

Barry Ulmer, executive director with the Chronic Pain Association of Canada, said he was pleased to see researchers at the U of A focused on examining chronic pain because “research is so critical to changing the lives of people who have to suffer with this serious disease.”

Jenna Hoff, 31, has been living with daily chronic pain for 12 years after she was seriously injured in a car accident. She eventually had to leave her career as a pediatric physical therapist and now works as a freelance writer. The condition she has is called chronic myofascial pain syndrome.

“For everyone who suffers from chronic pain, they are not just statistics, they are real people�they could be your mother, your sister, your husband, your child. The more research that is funded and supported, the more people who live with chronic pain can benefit. This research gives me hope.”