Queen’s University Belfast - Dr Ikhlas El Karim & Dr Fionnuala Lundy
Every year, 8% of the population will be diagnosed with chronic pain but only two-thirds will recover. By collecting human nerve stem cells from discarded human teeth, this project will increase our understanding of how inflammation affects the nerve cells in the face and how this can lead to chronic pain, whilst replacing the use of animals.

Short-term or acute pain serves a useful purpose, indicating to us that something is wrong, but chronic or persistent pain appears to serve no useful purpose. In order to effectively treat and alleviate the condition, it is crucial to gain an understanding of how and why chronic pain develops.

The molecular response we have to acute pain can become uncontrolled and this often occurs when the pain is associated with inflammation. Inflammatory pain is not well understood and this is particularly true of pain associated with the nerves that supply the face.

This PhD Studentship will be based in the laboratory of Dr Ikhlas El Karim at Queen’s University Belfast. This project will increase our understanding of how inflammation affects the nerve cells in the face and how this can lead to chronic pain – all whilst replacing the use of animals.

Dr El Karim’s research group have extensive experience of creating specialised nerve cells from the stem cells derived from dental pulp. This dental pulp is extracted from teeth that have been removed through routine dental procedures and consequently proved a reliable source of stem cells.

The nerve cells that are created can then be used to study how they respond to inflammatory molecules. They will investigate how the reactions of the nerve cells change with different stimuli over time and therefore identify the key events that occur with the development of chronic pain. They are hoping to study, in detail, several specific nerve cell receptors which differ between animals and humans.

The drive to develop animal-replacement approaches for pain research is particularly important as scientists will often need to induce pain in animals in order to understand the processes involved. Additionally, there are uncertainties of whether animal models reproduce the same biological responses as humans do to painful stimuli. Animal models are often chosen over human studies due to issues associated with collecting relevant human facial nerve tissue. By being able to create facial nerve cells from human stem cells, many of these issues can be circumvented.

Hopefully, as a result of this work, we will gain further understanding of the functionality and activity of human nerves during inflammation and eventually discover novel drug targets.