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$250,000 in gifts supports research to treat burn pain

August 2011

by Natalie Gutierrez

Staff Sgt. Shilo Harris with his daughter, Elizabeth
The UT Health Science Center will partner with military institutions in San Antonio to develop new treatments for burn pain that could benefit brave servicemen and women such as Staff Sgt. Shilo Harris (pictured with his daughter, Elizabeth). Staff Sgt. Harris, who was burned over 30 percent of his body in 2007 while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, has benefited from participating in other Health Science Center research programs.
More than 2 million people in the United States require treatment for burns each year. Thousands, including children, die or experience prolonged suffering. With more burned and injured servicemen and women returning home from the decade-long war in Afghanistan, the need for better treatments for burn pain is critical now more than ever.

Thanks to a $50,000 gift from the Elizabeth Huth Coates Charitable Foundation and a $200,000 gift from another local foundation, researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio can move a step closer to developing new therapies that treat the cause of burn pain and not just its symptoms. The gifts will align top Health Science Center scientists with physicians and leaders at military partner institutions, including the Burn Center at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) and the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (ISR), toward this goal.

Kenneth Hargreaves, D.D.S., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Endodontics in the Dental School at the Health Science Center, has led breakthrough discoveries in understanding the mechanisms of pain and how to more effectively treat it.

"Pain due to burns is a major problem since under-treatment is a risk factor for pain to become chronic," Dr. Hargreaves said. "Many available analgesics have either limited analgesia for burn pain or produce adverse side effects. "These gifts have greatly accelerated our research into the role of the endo-capsaicins in burn pain particularly in our military servicemen and women."

A substance similar to capsaicin, which gives chili peppers their heat, is generated at the site of pain in the human body. Dr. Hargreaves and his team discovered how to block these capsaicin-like molecules and created a new class of nonaddictive painkillers.

Capsaicin is an ingredient in hot chili peppers that causes pain by activating a receptor called transient potential vanilloid 1 (TRPV1). Researchers used cells from laboratory mice that were heated in a water bath at temperatures greater than 43 degrees Celsius. The degree of heat used was significant because the human body normally begins to feel discomfort and pain at 43 degrees Celsius and higher, Dr. Hargreaves noted.

"We found that in the cells heated at greater than 43 degrees Celsius, the pain neurons showed tremendous activity in the mice with TRPV1," Dr. Hargreaves said. He indicated that this novel phenomenon was taking place because the cells, in response to the heat, began to create their own natural endogenous capsaicins, which researchers later identified as a series of compounds or fatty acids called oxidized linoleic acid metabolites (OLAMs).

Linoleic acid is one of the most abundant fatty acids in the human body. Under conditions such as inflammation, low blood pressure and some other illnesses, linoleic acid is rapidly oxidized to form biologically active metabolites.

The findings have led Dr. Hargreavesí team to develop two newclasses of analgesics using drugs that either block the synthesis of OLAMs or antibodies that inactivate them. Dr. Hargreaves noted that the drugs could eventually come in the form of a topical agent, or a pill or liquid that could be ingested, or in the form of an injection. All approaches have the potential to block pain at its source, unlike opioid narcotics that travel to the brain and affect the central nervous system.†

"The data shows that these drugs inhibit pain neurons in vitro and produce analgesia in animal models of inflammation." Dr. Hargreaves said. "The question now is to determine if these new drugs are effective in treating burn pain. Thanks to these new gifts, we will be able to look at moving to the next level by collaborating with BAMC and the ISR for human clinical trials that could have immediate relevance for treating wounded warriors suffering from burn pain."

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