Arin Bhattacharjee, PhD

Ram Samudrala, PhD

Jacobs School Researchers Receive NIH HEAL Awards

Published November 13, 2019

Two Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences’ researchers studying how to develop novel, non-addicting painkillers have each been issued awards by the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative, a prestigious and highly competitive program from the National Institutes of Health.

“We are extremely proud that research by our faculty, who are tackling how to develop non-addictive pain treatments — one of society’s most pressing current health issues — is of such a caliber that it has attracted the interest and support of this major NIH HEAL Initiative.”
Vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Bringing Recognition to School’s Research

Arin Bhattacharjee, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology, has been awarded $1.9 million for his five-year project on disrupting ion channel scaffolding to treat neuropathic pain.

Ram Samudrala, PhD, professor and chief of the Division of Bioinformatics in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, is a winner of an ASPIRE Design Challenge prize competition, also part of the NIH HEAL Initiative and administered by NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

Michael E. Cain, MD, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School, says the fact that two of the school’s researchers were issued awards shows the caliber of research being conducted at the medical school, which has been at the forefront in combating the opioid overdose crisis.

“We are extremely proud that research by our faculty, who are tackling how to develop non-addictive pain treatments — one of society’s most pressing current health issues — is of such a caliber that it has attracted the interest and support of this major NIH HEAL Initiative,” Cain says.

Bhattacharjee Focuses on Scaffold Protein

Bhattacharjee, also a faculty member in UB’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions, says the goal of his research is to validate as a novel pain target a type of scaffold protein that regulates key ion channels at the sites of sensory nerve injury.

He noted that a tremendous amount of pharmaceutical research has focused — unsuccessfully — on drugs that block these ion channels.

“What’s different about our approach is that we think the scaffold protein is bringing ion channels to the area of nerve damage,” Bhattacharjee explains. “We have demonstrated and published that in an animal model, if the scaffold protein is genetically removed or pharmacologically targeted, the sensitivity to pain is significantly decreased. The purpose of our grant is to validate that the scaffold protein is the target to go after to address neuropathic pain.”

Tracey A. Ignatowski, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences, and Andrew J. Fabiano, MD, clinical associate professor of neurosurgery and director of the Spinal Oncology Center at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, are also part of the investigative team.

The team will further validate the analgesic potential of this scaffold protein by conducting studies on isolated human dorsal root ganglion neurons, which are involved in sensing pain. Data will be obtained from consenting patients from whom the neurons are removed as part of their treatment.

Samudrala Develops Virtual Screening Platform

Samudrala and his project teammate, Gaurav Chopra, PhD, of the Department of Chemistry and the Institute for Drug Discovery at Purdue University, won $100,000 for their design solution submitted for Challenge 3: Predictive Algorithms for Translational Innovation in Pain, Opioid Use Disorder and Overdose.

“We have developed the Computational Analysis of Novel Drug Opportunities (CANDO) platform that allows us to screen every drug against every disease by virtually screening every drug or compound against a large library of protein structures,” says Samudrala, who is also bioinformatics lead for the informatics core of UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

Samudrala says they will use the prize money to extend the platform’s screening in several ways, including screening new compounds not just to see how they interact with proteins, but also against RNA.

The design solution, titled “Optimum Analgesic Discovery by Multiscale Interactomic Profiling,” seeks to virtually design new molecules that are optimal analgesics with a low risk of addiction.

“Our platform will try to look at every gene and every molecule in the body to see how every opiate interacts with every molecule and therefore, to get a comprehensive handle on the puzzle of addiction in the context of pain management,” he says.

Hoping to Improve Treatments for Chronic Pain

The NIH HEAL Initiative was launched in 2018 to improve prevention and treatment strategies for opioid misuse and addiction, and enhance pain management. It aims to improve treatments for chronic pain, curb the rates of opioid use disorder and overdose, and achieve long-term recovery from opioid addiction.

In September, NIH announced a total of $945 million in HEAL grants to researchers in 41 states, including those at UB.