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ECU Notes: Drug research targets neuropathic pain

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Brody School of Medicine researchers Kori Brewer and Stefan Clemens are working to help relieve pain experienced by patients with spinal cord injuries. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

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By ECU News Services

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Scientists at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University are researching a novel approach to treating the debilitating pain that commonly occurs after a spinal cord injury. Their work is supported by a new two-year, $300,000 grant from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation.

The most common treatment for the ailment, known as neuropathic pain, is as troublesome as it is effective. It involves the use of opioids such as morphine, which can become less effective as the body builds up tolerance to them. Opioids also are considered extremely addictive and put patients at risk of substance abuse.

Kori Brewer, associate professor of emergency medicine, and Stefan Clemens, associate professor of physiology, are working on a better answer.

The researchers will combine opioid drugs with medications that influence dopamine production. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that affects emotions and the way people perceive feelings such as pleasure or pain.

"The goal is to combine previously developed drugs that have synergistic actions on the nervous system to maximize the benefit at lower doses than either drug would require on its own, reducing the likelihood of unwanted side effects," Brewer said.

Roughly 1.3 million Americans are paralyzed due to spinal cord injuries. The resulting neuropathic pain can be intense and patients often describe it with words such as "sharp," "stabbing," "burning" and "electrical." It affects quality of life, disturbs sleeping patterns and makes it harder for patients to participate in physical therapy that is essential to their recovery.

The pain is so extreme that an influential survey conducted in the 1990s showed that most patients named neuropathic pain as one of the most difficult consequences of their injury along with loss of motor function and bladder control.

"One aspect is the chronic nature of this neuropathic pain," Clemens said. "No treatment at this point is really effective over time."

Brewer earned her doctorate at ECU before completing her post-doctoral training at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. There, she focused on the sensory complications of spinal cord injuries and was first introduced to the problem of chronic neuropathic pain occurring after spinal cord injuries. Since Brewer’s return to ECU, she has continued her work on the mechanisms and treatments of spinal cord injuries.

Clemens received his master's at University Münster in Germany and his doctoral and continental habilitation degree at the University of Bordeaux in France. Before coming to ECU, Clemens held post-doctoral positions at Georgia State University and the Emory University School of Medicine.

Clemens and Brewer have previously worked together to study potential reasons why opioids may not be the most effective treatment for spinal cord injury-related neuropathic pain. The findings of that research are the basis for their latest grant.

"The nice thing about this is that we're not trying to develop a new drug, not spending years trying to come up with a new idea," Brewer said. "The drugs are already out there, already available for people, (we just need to) see if we can use them in a new way that's going to benefit."

The researchers hope the availability of the drugs could mean a better treatment is accessible in just a few years.

Eventually, the method could be applied to other chronic pain syndromes such as those associated with peripheral nerve injuries, restless leg syndrome and even the normal aging process.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist to visit ECU

Colson Whitehead will read from and talk about his 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Underground Railroad” at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Wright Auditorium.

Whitehead will be at ECU as part of the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences Voyages of Discovery Series.

Throughout his career, Whitehead has been honored with many awards and distinctions, including a MacArthur Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers Fellowship, Whiting Writers Award and the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. Whitehead’s reviews, essays and fiction have appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Harper’s Magazine and Granta.

He has taught at the University of Houston, Columbia University, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, New York University, Princeton University and Wesleyan University. In addition, Whitehead has been a writer-in-residence at Vassar College, the University of Richmond and the University of Wyoming.

The Voyages of Discovery Series is made possible through contributions from Harriot College’s Dean’s Advancement Council, university organizations and many friends and supporters.

Whitehead’s presentation is a Wellness Passport Event and free for ECU students. Tickets are required. To receive a ticket, ECU students must go to the ECU Central Ticket Office in Mendenhall Student Center and present his or her ECU One Card.

Tickets for Whitehead’s event are $15. Tickets for youth ages 16 and under are $5. Tickets may be requested through the ECU Central Ticket Office by calling 1-800-ECU-ARTS (800-328-2787) or by visiting http://www.ecu.edu/voyages/tickets.cfm. Individuals requesting accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act should call 252-737-1016 (voice/TTY) at least 48 hours before the event.

More information about the Voyages Series is at www.ecu.edu/voyages.

Upcoming events:

Fall Career Fair, 1-4 p.m. Wednesday at the Greenville Convention Center. ECU students and alumni have the opportunity to meet and interview with employers from many different industries including banking, construction and health care. More than 200 companies and corporations are scheduled to attend. Visit www.ecu.edu/career.

Pledge Purple Week, Monday-Wednesday. Pledge Purple, an initiative focused on education and advocacy on the issues of sexual violence, harassment and bullying, will include a resource fair, Take Back the Night marches and an appearance by Jay Asher, author of the novel “13 Reasons Why.” Visit www.ecu.edu/ecunited.

Peace.Love.Pirates.Cure, 4-7 p.m. Wednesday in the Student Recreation Center. This annual event promotes cancer awareness and knowledge by providing information tailored to help participants live healthy, cancer-free lives. Included are educational tables and interactive activities designed to help participants avoid skin, breast, cervical, testicular, lung and prostate cancers. Visit www.ecu.edu/crw.

School of Art and Design Undergraduate Exhibition, on display Friday-Oct. 26 in the Wellington B. Gray Gallery, Jenkins Fine Arts Center. Outstanding works submitted from more than 400 undergraduate students will be featured. An awards ceremony will be held 4 p.m. Friday in Speight Auditorium.

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