Dr. Helen Lai recognized as emerging leader in pain research

Dr. Helen Lai, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience

DALLAS – March 6, 2018 – 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 named Dr. Lai an Award in Pain Scholar as part of its annual recognition of emerging leaders in pain research.

The Award in Pain program is part of the Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program, which since 1976 has awarded millions of dollars in grants to early-career biomedical scholars studying cancer, immunology, and neuroscience.

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 in the Center for Hypothalamic Research at UT Southwestern, which is recognizing its 75th anniversary this year.

“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.

“Dr. Lai is an exceptionally talented scientist working on the molecular and circuit-based understanding of pain,” said Dr. Joseph S. Takahashi, Chairman of Neuroscience, holder the Loyd B. Sands Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience at UT Southwestern, and an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “Her work on insensitivity to pain is novel and opens new inroads into understanding CIP and possible therapeutic approaches.”

Dr. Lai, added, “I am incredibly grateful to the Rita Allen Foundation and American Pain Society for this prestigious award that will help me jump-start this research program.”

About the Rita Allen Foundation

The Rita Allen Foundation invests in transformative ideas in their earliest stages to leverage their growth and promote breakthrough solutions to significant problems. It enables early-career biomedical scholars to do pioneering research, seeds innovative approaches to fostering informed civic engagement, and develops knowledge and networks to build the effectiveness of the philanthropic sector. Throughout its work, the Foundation embraces collaboration, creativity, learning and leadership.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 22 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The faculty of more than 2,700 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients, 600,000 emergency room cases, and oversee approximately 2.2 million outpatient visits a year.