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New Pain Research May Help Dental and Medical Patients

Ann Arbor, MI — September 11, 2014 — A fourth-year student in the School of Dentistry’s Oral Health Sciences/PhD program has been recognized for his research that may shed new light on why some dental and medical patients with pain are oblivious to it until, in many instances, it’s too late.

The student, Christopher Donnelly, recently received the Dziewiatkowski Award for his research that was inspired by Dr. Brian Pierchala, an assistant professor of dentistry in the Department of Biologic and Materials Sciences.  Pierchala’s lab is exploring the biological mechanisms underlying the development of neurons that are responsible for the sense of pain.

“Understanding how we develop our sense of pain requires a multidisciplinary understanding of neurobiology, craniofacial development and cell biology,” Donnelly says.  While studying the different pathological conditions involving pain, he became interested in a rare genetic disorder, congenital insensitivity to pain with anhydrosis (CIPA).

Patients with CIPA are completely insensitive to pain due to the death of neurons that are responsible for transmitting the sensation of pain to the brain.  “As a result, these patients may accidentally break bones, suffer burns and cuts, and develop multiple open sores, putting them at much greater risk of infection and other systemic problems,” Donnelly says. 

In dentistry, a general dentist or specialist may see patients with various types of orofacial pain including toothaches or chronic disorders including trigeminal neuralgia, temporomandibular joint disorder, burning mouth syndrome, or other conditions.

Donnelly’s research focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms that influence the growth, survival and death of neurons.  “Understanding, on a molecular level, how different neural circuits are formed during embryonic development is an important step in understanding how pathologies affecting these cells develop or emerge later in life,” he says. 

A Significant Discovery

“While our research is very basic science oriented, our work has led to the discovery of a novel interaction between a receptor that acts as a critical mediator of cell death, p75, and another receptor that is important in promoting neuron survival, Ret,” Donnelly says.  “In fact, we discovered that the molecular mechanisms that dictate neuron survival and death are more closely linked than was once thought.”    

Donnelly says the p75/Ret receptor complex is critical to neuron development and survival.  “This is an important shift in the way we think about neuron development and could have implications in how we think about the design of therapies for pain syndromes and neurodegenerative diseases,” he adds.

Established in 1989, the annual Dziewiatkowski Award recognizes U-M School of Dentistry students for their research excellence.  It was created to honor the memory of Dr. Dominic Dziewiatkowski who taught at the School of Dentistry for 18 years and directed the Dental Research Institute from 1967 to 1972.  It has been presented annually by his daughter, Jane Damren, and her husband, Samuel Damren.