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UNE Awarded $10 Million NIH Grant to Conduct Research and Establish a Center on the Neurobiology of Pain

The University of New England has received the largest research award in its history, with a $10 million award announced today by the National Institutes of Health.

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Biddeford, Maine — The University of New England has received the largest research award in its history, with a $10 million award announced today by the National Institutes of Health.

The five-year award will be used to establish the UNE Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) for the Study of Pain and Sensory Function. UNE’s COBRE aims to significantly contribute to the scientific understanding of the neurobiology of chronic pain and sensory function, facilitating the discovery and development of new therapies.

UNE already has a well-established Center for Excellence in the Neurosciences (CEN), led by founding director and Associate Provost for Research and Scholarship Edward Bilsky, Ph.D. and co-director Ian Meng, Ph.D. Dr. Meng serves as the principal investigator on the NIH COBRE award and Dr. Bilsky is a co-investigator. They are both eminent scientists in the pain and neuroscience fields with well-established translational research programs.

A confocal microscope image from Colin Willis' research, showing fluorescent tracer (red) taken up by macrophage (green) in the brain (area postrema). University of New England  

Meng explains, “Chronic pain is a major health, social and economic problem worldwide, affecting about one in three people. Although research has vastly increased our knowledge about the basic mechanisms of acute, inflammatory and neuropathic pain, relatively little is known about the processes involved in the transition from acute to chronic pain. Funding will help drive innovative research that increases our understanding of pain as a progressive disease, while also connecting us with strategic partners who can translate these findings into new treatments for patients suffering from chronic pain.”

Bilsky notes, “The COBRE award is the culmination of many years of hard work and investment from faculty members and the institution. Through both a common vision of building biomedical research capacity at the university and a passion around relieving the burden of pain, UNE has assembled a talented group of scientists, physicians and health professionals. The National Institutes of Health have recognized the progress made to date, and have made a very significant investment in ensuring that we continue to grow our pain and neuroscience research programs.”

UNE President Danielle Ripich, Ph.D., adds: "I've often said that UNE is a private university with a public mission. With this $10 million research award, the NIH recognizes the significant role that UNE plays in researching and developing innovative solutions to some of the major scientific challenges facing society. The research that Drs. Meng, Bilsky and their team are conducting has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people suffering from chronic pain each day."

UNE’s COBRE comprises a core group of UNE neuroscientists, pharmacologists and chemists focused on understanding the neurobiology of pain. The center will benefit from UNE’s current and continued investment into its research infrastructure, as well as collaborations among UNE colleges and with other research institutions.

The COBRE provides career development, mentorship and research support for UNE’s junior faculty. It will also strengthen UNE’s medicinal chemistry capabilities in collaboration with the College of Pharmacy to help explore the pathophysiology of chronic pain and develop potential new clinical drug candidates. This will lay the foundation for future development of a clinical pain research group to collaborate with UNE’s basic science investigators.

The grant will enable UNE to increase the number of neuroscience investigators to further build on its critical mass of personnel necessary to sustain a vibrant and competitive research center, as well as recruit and hire additional investigators whose research programs will complement those of existing faculty.

Current UNE faculty involved with the grant include Associate Professor Geoffrey Bove, DC, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Colin Willis, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor Ling Cao, Ph.D., all in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, College of Osteopathic Medicine; and Associate Professor Geoffrey Ganter, Ph.D. and Assistant Professor Lei Lei, Ph.D., both of the Department of Biology, College of Arts and Sciences.

The funds will also be used to renovate laboratory space, purchase core behavioral, imaging and histology equipment, and fund key support personnel, providing the infrastructure, equipment and personnel necessary to support the COBRE’s research programs.

Dan Carr, M.D., program director of the Pain, Research Education & Policy Center at Tufts University, the only one of its kind in the country, says, "This unprecedented award is a glowing endorsement by the National Institutes of Health of the exceptional research and leadership talents of Drs Meng and Bilsky. Already distinguished by their remarkable track record of research productivity and innovative therapies, the team led by Drs Meng and Bilsky will now be able to accelerate their development of new knowledge and its translation into tomorrow's treatments for chronic pain."