UNM Anesthesiology Pain Research Laboratory
Hugh Martin, MD (left) and Jeffrey Norenberg, PhD, use night vision equipment to work in a dark room – part of the new UNM Anesthesiology Pain Research Laboratory.
Credit: John Arnold

Every creature with a nervous system experiences discomfort from time to time – but severe chronic pain presents a special kind of suffering.

A multidisciplinary team of UNM researchers is tackling this problem with the help of a new, state-of-the-art laboratory that will help them pinpoint how the nervous system responds to potential therapies.

“We want to focus on pain mechanisms,” says Hugh Martin, MD, chair of the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care, who spearheaded construction of the new facility. “What are the deep-down neuronal injuries when you have a bone spur that constricts a nerve that comes out of the spinal cord?”

The Anesthesiology Pain Research Laboratory is specially equipped to examine the bio-distribution of novel pain drugs, says Erin Milligan, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Neurosciences. An animal is administered a candidate drug tagged with a radioisotope compound. Its tissues are sectioned into ultra-thin 5-micron slices that are imaged and digitally stored. When these images are overlaid with a radioisotope image using special software, scientists can create a 3-D picture showing how much of the drug has been absorbed and where in the body it is concentrated.

It’s a big step toward developing a competitive program in the hunt for non-opioid alternatives for pain relief, Milligan says. “We don’t have anything in the Southwest like that. New Mexico would benefit tremendously from having a pain research center.”

This research traditionally has focused on nerve cells and how they communicate with one another, but Milligan is looking elsewhere. She is studying how, in chronic pain patients, pro-inflammatory immune cells flock from the site of an injury to portions of the spinal cord. “These regions in the spinal cord are critical to pain processing,” she says.

Milligan is testing BIRT-377, a drug that could block immune cells from triggering the inflammation that drives chronic pain. That’s where Jeffrey Norenberg, PhD, comes in. A professor in the College of Pharmacy and an expert in pharmacodynamics, he has patented a radioisotope-tagged version of the drug. Norenberg is excited by the new lab’s technical capabilities.

“It’s the marriage of the equipment for collecting the slices to the software to the analysis that makes it state-of-the art,” he says. “You’re not going to see anything like this. That’s what makes it a very unique laboratory.” In the new lab, he adds, “We can do noninvasive in vivo imaging using functional probes. We can also drill down to the tissue and even cellular level in this lab. There are certain questions you can only answer when you get into a complex system.”

The lab is available to UNM faculty who are studying neuro-immune conditions. “They are very interested in dovetailing with Hugh’s lab,” Milligan says. “It’s going to be a very multidisciplinary research program.”

Meanwhile, the insights gained from collaborating with Martin and Norenberg help Milligan connect basic science research to patient needs.

“We don’t want to be in an ivory tower,” she says. “We really want to be one step from the clinic, all the time. What are the practical clinical problems that are observed in your patients on a routine basis? Hugh’s clinical faculty tell me what’s practical, what’s not practical and what is desperately needed.”