I use mouse models of sickle cell disease to study the neurobiological basis of acute and chronic pain.
Sickle cell disease (SCD) is the most common genetic blood disorder in the world. Approximately 100,000 Americans, primarily those of African descent, suffer from this condition that is named for the rigid shape that red blood cells take in affected individuals. Pain is one of the primary symptoms of SCD and the leading reason that patients with this condition seek medical attention. Patients with SCD experience many types of pain throughout their life; excruciating acute pain episodes often begin following the fetal-to-adult hemoglobin switch that occurs during late infancy, and chronic pain develops in many patients as they age.
The biological basis of both acute and chronic SCD pain is unclear. In my research program, I use transgenic mouse models of SCD to investigate how SCD pain is processed by the peripheral and central nervous system. Findings observed in this naturally developing, bonafide chronic pain model are often reexamined in other models to determine broad translational potential. Specific areas of interest are discussed below.
How does the gut microbiome contribute to chronic pain?
The human gastrointestinal tract is inhabited by millions of bacteria that are critical for normal gut function. Over the past decade, accumulating evidence has suggested that these bacterial populations (collectively known as the gut microbiome) are disrupted in many neurological conditions including mood disorders, autism, schizophrenia, and chronic pain. It is unclear if disease-related changes in bacteria drive symptoms in patients, or if microbial changes are merely a result of the underlying condition. Using fecal material transplant experiments, I am directly investigating if and how the gut microbiome from various chronic pain models modulates sensory signaling in the peripheral and central nervous system. These experiments will increase our understanding of interoceptive processes and provide numerous opportunities for novel drug development.
Illustration by Teresa Patitucci, PhD