Project Is Supported by $844,000 Grant from the National Institutes of Health

Patient with chronic pain
Chronic pain afflicts up to one in five adults and is the most common cause of long-term disability in the world.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Chronic inflammatory pain, which is often caused by underlying health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia, affects the quality of life for millions of people, impacting everything from mobility to social activities. Treatment is often complicated by the use of opioids because of the related side effects and the risk of addiction.

A research team led by Biomedical Engineering Asst. Prof. Bryan James Black could help change that. Black and researchers from UMass Lowell and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are developing a way to screen non-opioid drugs for use in treating chronic pain. 

The team’s project is funded with a four-year, $844,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

“Opioid painkillers, such as morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl, which are commonly prescribed for treating or managing pain, are associated with a high incidence of serious side effects and abuse,” says Black.

The research team is developing an innovative, 3D tissue-chip model of acute and chronic nociception – the process by which pain stimulation is communicated through the body’s peripheral and central nervous system – that could help facilitate the preclinical development of new non-opioid pain treatments, therapies or drugs. 

Bryan Black head shot

Biomedical Engineering Asst. Prof. Bryan James Black’s research goal is to better understand chronic pain conditions and develop alternatives to opioid treatments.

Black says current “in-vivo” (living) and “in-vitro” (laboratory) models used to study nociception and test potential treatments are inadequate.

“What makes our research unique is the inclusion of generic human cells, derived from blood or skin biopsy, which are programmed to behave as nociceptors, the cells in your body that detect and transmit pain signals to the brain,” says Black, who is the principal investigator for the project.

As part of its effort, the team has designed a new screening platform, or assay, to detect and identify drugs that may treat or manage inflammatory chronic pain conditions, using specialized cells – called human-induced pluripotent stem cell sensory neurons and satellite glial cell surrogates – on a chip with multi-well microelectrode arrays.

“Our ultimate goal is to detect novel analgesics that address inflammatory pain from a collection of drugs previously approved by the FDA for other symptoms,” says Black. “In doing so, we may be able to streamline both the drug’s discovery and development into preclinical models.”

Biomedical engineering student in the lab
Biomedical engineering graduate student and research assistant Rasha El Ghazal prepares libraries of FDA-approved compounds for screening in Black’s lab.
Aside from Black, other members of the research team includes biomedical engineering graduate students Lilly Lawson and Rasha El Ghazal, undergraduate students James Zook, Mauricio De Almeida and Alex Somers, and Assoc. Prof. Zachary Campbell of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A Growing Health Concern

Health care professionals are concerned about the potential for patients to abuse or become addicted to opioids. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020 alone, 9.3 million people aged 12 or older misused prescription opioids. The goal of this research is for them to have access to safer, more effective and non-addictive alternatives to pain management to reduce the number of people who misuse or overdose on opioids.

Black’s project is part of a new NIH initiative called HEAL, which stands for “Helping End Addiction Long-Term.”

“The broad aim of this initiative is to find replacements for opioid-based analgesics, as well as therapies that may help those who are currently addicted,” he notes.

Black says there are at least four other teams around the world pursuing this line of research, although there are subtle differences in their approach and targeted indication. 

“What makes our research different from the other studies, aside from the inclusion of human tissues, is the exploitation of the cells’ phenotypic activity. By culturing these cells on multi-well microelectrode arrays, we can record their functional activity – their phenotype – over extended periods of time and/or under repeated, treated conditions,” he explains. 

Black adds: “While our research will not be applied directly to patient care, drug ‘hits’ [candidates] from our assay will be advanced to preclinical research, which we hope will soon offer relief or treatment to patients suffering from long-term inflammatory pain conditions.”