Researchers say a $10 million federal grant could help the University of New England become a hub of research into new ways to treat pain.

The university was awarded the five-year grant this week as part of a major initiative by the National Institutes of Health to research new ways to treat chronic pain.

UNE will focus on some of the science behind pain that researchers hope will lead to new treatments.

The grant will help the university launch its Center of Biomedical Research Excellence, said Edward Bilsky, associate provost for research and scholarship and the center’s founding director.

Bilsky said the grant will enable UNE to build new labs, buy new equipment for research and fund research by investigators who will look at topics such as the basic ways the brain and body interact in sending and receiving pain messages.

Other investigators will look at issues such as why drugs for migraine headaches tend to become less effective over time and study pain that’s caused by the immune system or the nervous system.

If UNE meets certain benchmarks, Bilsky said, the grant can be renewed for $10 million more and an additional five years. And researchers who are making progress will be able to seek grants to expand their efforts, he said.

The effort could help Maine attract biomedical firms, said Ian Meng, who will be the principal investigator for the center.

“This grant is meant to take a university that doesn’t necessarily have a heavy research infrastructure to the next level,” Meng said.

In the last decade, Meng said, UNE has “really started to build up a core neuroscience research group” that will be supported by the major grant.

Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, said that in tight budget times, grant proposals generally must be in the top 10 to 15 percent to get funded.

Landis’ institute funds most of the pain research in the country, but UNE’s grant came from a program designed to develop cutting-edge research in states that don’t get much NIH funding, she said.

UNE’s research will help advance pain treatment by looking at the root causes of pain, Landis said, rather than the symptom itself.

“We’ve found that it’s very difficult to develop good therapeutic drugs if you don’t have a thorough understanding of the molecular mechanism” that’s causing the pain, she said.

Bilsky said UNE, with campuses in Biddeford and Portland, will focus on why acute pain becomes chronic and how it can be treated.

He said there’s a positive side to acute pain, which is the body’s protective response to injury.

But when pain becomes constant, “typically, it’s not serving any purpose,” he said. “It’s debilitating, chronic in nature and unrelenting.”

He said the pharmaceutical industry has produced drugs that address pain, but they often have serious physical and psychological side effects — not the least of which is addiction, a problem that is plaguing Maine more than most states.

He said UNE will look at “understanding pain as a disease. It’s not something that’s in your head or something that you tough out. And with drugs, there’s always the balancing of their efficacy versus their side effects.”

Meng said the pharmaceutical industry has had setbacks recently with pain drugs that haven’t worked as the manufacturers hoped. It is responding by pulling back in research and development.

In that vacuum, UNE can provide both basic research into pain and applied science that could lead to new treatments, Meng said.

If UNE can find effective ways to treat pain, biotech and pharmaceutical firms will want to collaborate with it to create marketable products, Meng said.

UNE can “make sure there’s a pipeline of educated workers and the intellectual capacity” to support those firms, he said. “It establishes southern Maine as a hub of biotechnology. Our state needs it.”

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]