1. Identifying non-opioid therapeutic drugs to treat chronic neuropathic pain

An unprecedented public health crisis of prescription opioid abuse both regionally and nationally is currently gripping the United States. While the underlying causes related to this public health crisis are largely speculative, one possible contributing factor is the dramatic escalation of prescription opioid treatment for chronic pain over the past decade. Preclinical studies convincingly support that not only do opioids exert negative consequences for pain, but also that chronic pain can be targeted by non-opioid drugs that lack direct actions on neurons thereby reducing addiction liability. Trafficking immune cells to the central nervous system (CNS) and immune-like glial cells within the CNS (e.g. astrocytes and microglia) are necessary for the development and maintenance of acute-to-chronic pain problems through inappropriate neuroimmune activation. One immune receptor found in the CNS is Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4) that is known to  induce the release of proinflammatory cytokines, such as interleukin-1b (IL-1b). Non-opioid compounds that block the TLR4-IL-1b pathway may provide substantially better therapeutic benefit than opiate drugs. One goal of my laboratory is to identify non-opioid drugs that harness endogenous anti-inflammatory mechanisms resulting in the suppression of proinflammatory cytokines such as IL-1b, providing a novel approach to treat chronic pain in people while lacking potential for addictive side effects. In addition to testing several novel and FDA-approved compounds, my lab works closely with UNM’s Center for Molecular Drug Discovery to identify and test potentially novel pain therapeutics that avoid opioid-related side effects.