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Dr. Helen Lai recognized as emerging leader in pain research

Allen Foundation Scholar Helen Lai

Dr. Helen Lai, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and a member of UT Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute, has received a three-year grant supporting her research seeking new methods of pain treatment.

The funding comes from the Rita Allen Foundation, which recently named Dr. Lai an Award in Pain Scholar as part of its annual recognition of emerging leaders in pain research. The honor is part of the Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program, which has awarded grants since 1976 to early career biomedical scholars in a variety of fields.

Dr. Lai and her research group will investigate mechanisms that underlie a type of congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP), a rare but dangerous condition that causes injuries to go unnoticed. One of the genetic mutations found in patients with CIP affects the functioning of PRDM12, a regulator that represses gene expression by chemically modifying histone proteins that associate with DNA. To determine how PRDM12 regulates the activity of genes involved in sensing pain, Dr. Lai plans to create a mouse model of the disease in collaboration with Dr. Chen Liu, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and Neuroscience.

“We can use this model to find the molecular mechanisms that are causing the painlessness,” Dr. Lai said. “Are there developmental defects? What is wrong with the cells that cannot sense pain?”

She hopes the findings will guide strategies to help patients, as well as point to new targets for treating pain. Dr. Lai, nominated by the American Pain Society, will receive grants of $50,000 annually for up to three years to pursue the research.

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