Researchers say a federal grant could help the University of New England become a hub of research in to new ways to treat pain.

The college was awarded a five-year, $10 million grant this week as part of a major National Institutes of Health initiative into new ways to treat chronic pain. UNE will focus on some of the science behind pain that researchers hope will lead to new treatments.

Story Landis, the director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes, said in tight budget times, grant proposals generally need to be in the top 10 to 15 percent to get funded.

Landis’s institute funds most of the pain research in the country, but the UNE grant came from a program designed to develop cutting-edge research in states that don’t get a lot of NIH funding, she said.

UNE’s research, Landis said, will help advance pain treatment by looking at the root causes of pain, rather than the symptom itself.

“We’ve found that it’s very difficult to develop good therapeutic drugs if you don’t have a thorough understanding of the molecular mechanism” that’s causing the pain, she said.

The grant will help UNE launch its Center of Biomedical Research Excellence, said Edward Bilsky, the college’s associate provost for research and scholarship and founding director of the center.

Bilsky said there’s a positive side to acute pain, which is the body’s protective response to injury.

But when that pain becomes constant, “typically, it’s not serving any purpose,” he said. “It’s debilitating, chronic in nature and unrelenting.”

Bilsky said UNE’s effort will focus on why acute pain becomes chronic and how it can be treated.

He said the pharmaceutical industry has produced drugs that address pain, but they often have serious physical and psychological side effects – not the least of which is addiction to painkillers, a problem that is plaguing Maine more than most states.

UNE, he said, will look at “understanding pain as a disease. It’s not something that’s in your head or something that you tough out. And with drugs, there’s always the balancing of their efficacy versus their side effects.”

The NIH established its Pain Consortium in 2003. Last year, it provided $386 million in funding for research focused on chronic pain.

The grant for UNE, Bilsky said, will allow the college to build new labs, buy new equipment for research and fund research by investigators who will look at topics such as the basic ways that the brain and body interact in sending and receive pain messages. Other investigators will look issues such as why drugs for migraine headaches tend to become less effective over time, or study pain that’s caused by the immune system or nervous system.

If UNE meets certain benchmarks, Bilsky said, the grant can be renewed for $10 million more and an additional five years. Plus, researchers who are making progress will be able to seek grants to expand their efforts, he said.

The effort could help Maine attract biomedical firms, said Ian Meng, who will serve as the principal investigator for the center.

“This grant is meant to take a university that doesn’t necessarily have a heavy research infrastructure to the next level,” Meng said.

In the last decade, Meng said, UNE has “really started to build up a core neuroscience research group” that will be supported by this new grant.

Meng said the pharmaceutical industry has had some setbacks recently with pain drugs that didn’t pan out as the manufacturers had hoped. They’re responding by pulling back in research and development.

In that vacuum, UNE can provide both basic science research into pain and also applied science that could lead to new treatments for pain, Meng said. If UNE can find some effective ways to treat pain, biotech and pharmaceutical firms will want to collaborate with the college to create marketable products, Meng said.

UNE can “make sure there’s a pipeline of educated workers and the intellectual capacity” to support those firms, he said. “It establishes southern Maine as a hub of biotechnology. Our state needs it.”

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