Finding better pain relievers

February 2, 2017
A pair of hands shake hands. One hand is in white coat.

In their quest for better pain relievers, George Wilcox and Carolyn Fairbanks draw on the expertise of many colleagues.

In one case, Wilcox, a neuroscience professor, was studying nerves that carry pain impulses from outlying areas—like skin and joints—to spinal nerves that relay the impulses to the brain. He found that a drug combo made in the laboratory of Professor Philip Portoghese, in the College of Pharmacy’s Department of Medicinal Chemistry, worked at the nerve endings in the spinal cord.

 “If it works there, why not [at the other end]?” asked Fairbanks, a pharmaceutics professor. Sure enough, the drugs worked there too—an important finding because it means the drugs could be applied to the affected area rather than injected.

Also, while the drugs relieve pain individually, in combination they pack 100 times the potency, meaning much lower dosages could potentially be used.

Fairbanks tests the analgesic effectiveness of new drugs that were designed by retired Professor Herb Nagasawa, based on her research. The University's Institute for Therapeutics Discovery and Development synthesizes them. Fairbanks is also researching the possibility of manipulating genes in localized areas of the nervous systems of patients with chronic pain. She hopes someday to be able to coax pain nerves to churn out a natural analgesic that would keep the nerves from firing, stopping pain impulses in their tracks.

Wilcox and Fairbanks are two of about a dozen principal investigators at the U’s internationally recognized Minnesota Center for Pain Research and are active in the national leadership of the American Pain Society.