Faculty and Staff, Research

UNC to Lead $16 Million Research Study on Pain Disorders

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) granted new funding for in-depth pain disorder research. The funding, $16 million over five years, will be split between the study’s four recruitment sites: the UNC School of Dentistry’s Regional Center for Neurosensory Disorders, the University of Florida at Gainesville, the University at Buffalo, N.Y, and the University of Maryland at Baltimore. Battelle Memorial Institute’s Center for Analytics and Public Health will serve as the program’s coordinating center. UNC will serve as the lead research site for the five-year study; program directors are Dr. William Maixner, director of the Regional Center for Neurosensory Disorders, and Dr. Gary Slade, director of the oral epidemiology Ph.D. program.

The program, titled Orofacial Pain Prospective Evaluation and Risk Assessment II (OPPERA II), is the second large investment in pain research made by NIDCR to UNC’s Regional Center for Neurosensory Disorders. OPPERA II is designed to build on the findings in its preceding study, OPPERA I, and will deepen the understanding of risk factors and genetic markers for chronic pain conditions like temporomandibular disorders (TMD), headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, low back pain and chronic widespread pain.

“Chronic pain is a substantial health problem – one that we’re just starting to truly understand – that plagues more than 100 million U.S. citizens,” said Maixner. “OPPERA II is critical to furthering our knowledge about human pain conditions. Once we better understand the causes of chronic pain and how one type of pain condition relates to another, we’ll be better able to treat those who suffer daily from these disorders.”

The OPPERA II program will enroll 3,000 new participants and conduct follow-up assessments of them and of 3,200 adults previously studied in the OPPERA I program. The investigators will assess behaviors, psychological characteristics, genetic factors and other biological mechanisms that contribute the onset and persistence of common chronic pain conditions like TMD, headaches, low back pain, abdominal pain and widespread pain. Researchers will look for commonalities as well as unique risk factors and biological mechanisms between the pain types.

“One thing we hope to accomplish is the identification of risk factors and biological mechanisms that cause the pain conditions to transition from an initial acute state to a persistent chronic state,” said Maixner. “Most clinical pain conditions disappear with time, but certain individuals are susceptible to developing chronic pain states. We hope to identify environmental events and biological processes that mediate the transition from acute to chronic pain. We also intend to identify the underlying biological processes that permit the co-expression of common chronic pain conditions that overlap with TMD. By identifying these risk factors and biological pathways we will be able to provide diagnoses based on the mechanisms mediating the pain, which will provide better treatment approaches for millions of chronic pain suffers.”

Participant recruitment sites for OPPERA II will be located at UNC, the College of Dentistry at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the School of Dental Medicine at the University at Buffalo in New York, the University of Maryland School of Dentistry in Baltimore, and Battelle. Other organizations assisting with the research are the University of Washington, led by Dr. Bruce Weir, and Harvard University, led by Dr. Shamil Sunyaev.

“OPPERA I and II are revolutionary in the study of pain because they allow us to identify biological, psychological and genetic contributions to common and frequently debilitating pain conditions,” Slade explained. “We are looking forward to new challenges and new discoveries that will improve the human condition.”