Neuroscience Society Labels Doctoral Research ‘Hot Topic’

Published December 6, 2019

An abstract co-authored by Rasheen Powell, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, has been selected as a “Neuroscience 2019 Hot Topic” by the Society for Neuroscience.

Out of more than 14,000 abstracts submitted, only about 100 abstracts were selected for this honor.

Studying Mechanisms of Inflammatory Pain

With his research, Powell aims to identify molecular targets to develop novel painkillers that would eliminate the need for opioids in treating chronic inflammatory pain. Current treatment strategies are not suited for long-term pain relief. 

Pain receptors, known as nociceptors, are sensory neurons that are activated by noxious stimuli. To develop new, non-addictive analgesics, scientists must understand how inflammation produces the change in nociceptor firing that underlies pain perception. 

The adaptor protein 2 (AP-2) complex is responsible for endocytosis, a basic cellular process where substances and membrane proteins are brought into a cell. Powell is studying the role of the AP-2 complex and endocytosis in the context of inflammatory pain.

Nociceptive dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons are central sites for investigative study. During tissue damage, inflammatory mediators initiate signal transduction in DRG neurons — altering channel properties and concomitant pain perception.

Using rodent models and genetic and pharmacological tools, Powell has demonstrated that inhibiting the AP-2 complex and endocytosis significantly reduced pain behavior in acute and chronic inflammatory pain for a prolonged period of time.

“The results of our work suggest that the AP2-endocytotic complex could be an important new analgesic target,” explains Powell. “This is significant because it’s necessary to shed light on the mechanisms of inflammatory pain that are independent of opioid signaling in order to develop future treatment strategies.”

Bhattacharjee: An Effective Mentor

The abstract’s co-author, Arin Bhattacharjee, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology, has mentored Powell since the summer of 2016.

Bhattacharjee has expertise in neurobiology, gene expression, ion channel kinetics and structure, membrane transport, molecular and cellular biology, pathophysiology and signal transduction. 

In September, Bhattacharjee was awarded $1.9 million from a highly competitive National Institutes of Health (NIH) program for a five-year project on disrupting ion channel scaffolding to treat neuropathic pain. 

Prior to that, in April, he was awarded $428,000 from the NIH to study the AP-2 complex and inflammatory pain. Powell received a Diversity Supplement award associated with this grant.

“My initial interests were not even close to neuroscience. However, Dr. Bhattacharjee’s passion for research, coupled with his outlook on science, attracted me to his lab,” emphasizes Powell.

Advantageous Facilities Bolster Research

“Growing up in Buffalo, I thought I knew all there was to know about UB, but the university keeps expanding at an unimaginable rate,” he says, adding that it was an easy decision to pursue his doctoral education at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“UB was the only school that appeared to be invested in my development as a scientist. Wasn’t a hard choice to make on my end.” 

Powell says the university’s constant pursuit of growth — which engendered the construction of the new building for the Jacobs School — has created an environment that allows him to pursue his interests.

“The new building offers up-to-date facilities where I can conduct sound science. This building has been pivotal as I progress through my thesis research,” he notes.

Abstract Included in Book of Hot Topics

Powell’s abstract, “Peripheral Knockdown of Endocytic Protein AP2A2 Ameliorates Acute and Chronic Inflammatory Pain-Like Behaviors in Mice,” is included in this year’s Hot Topics book, which the Society for Neuroscience distributes to the media.

Powell presented his abstract at the society’s annual meeting in Chicago.

The society has more than 37,000 members in at least 95 countries, and the annual conference is one of the largest in the world, with approximately 30,000 attendees.