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UW Professor's Work Published in Nature
December 7, 2009 — A University of Wyoming associate professor has helped identify a little-known and previously poorly understood population of skin sensory neurons that can make people feel extreme pain following injury.
C. Jeffery Woodbury, in the Department of Zoology and Physiology, and his colleagues from the University of California, San Francisco and Johns Hopkins University, report their findings in a paper published in the Dec. 3 issue of Nature, the international weekly journal of science.
Working with mice, the team of scientists identified a small subset of nerve cells that convey sensations of gentle touch under normal conditions but also appear to play an unforeseen role in the hypersensitivity and chronic pain following injury. The identification of this population may open up novel avenues for developing new drugs to target and block the transmission of pain through this nerve pathway.
The existence of this enigmatic population of skin sensory cells has been known for decades but a clear understanding of their role in sensation had remained out of reach, says Woodbury, who joined the UW faculty in 2003.
Since the cells were first discovered in the 1960s, Woodbury says researchers have tended to ignore them because it was so difficult to record from them and they didn't fit the standard mold presented in textbooks.
"We certainly had no idea they might also play a role in pain following injury. The most exciting thing about these findings is that we now have a molecular marker to identify these cells," Woodbury says. "This is a real breakthrough, and will facilitate research into their various roles in sensation."
"I have been interested in this population for decades," he adds. "A goal of my research is to understand how stimuli that are normally perceived as pleasurable, such as a gentle breeze or soft caress, can instead become excruciating in various types of chronic pain states following injury. We now have a key handle on cells that may be involved in these sensory transitions."
Woodbury's work was supported in part by a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, awarded in 2008 to continue his research into pain mechanisms.
The paper was published in advance in Nature's Nov. 15 online edition. To read it, go towww.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/nature08505.html.