Scientist gets $1.8M to study back pain

The Island Now

Back pain is the most common cause of disability in the United States, according to the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset. 

Nadeen Chahine, a Ph.D. scientist with the organization, took a step last month toward addressing the ailment’s impact when she received a five-year, $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to explore inflammation’s role in degenerative disc diseases of the spine, the institute said. 

“Spine- and disc-related pain affect people from young adulthood onward, in the prime of their life when they’re most busy in careers and having families. So it causes a tremendous economic burden as well as a health care burden,”  Chahine said.

“My area of interest is to try to understand what causes the discs and soft tissues of the spine, which give it flexibility, to degenerate over time,” she added. 

The study will examine a molecule called the high mobility group box one, HMGB1, a protein expressed by dying or stressed cells, the institute said. 

The question the study seeks to answer is whether the release of the protein in such cells is a cause of the degeneration in spinal discs and soft tissue. 

“Are the molecules a leading cause of degeneration or a bystander? It’s hard to know,” she said. 

Chahine will examine how the HMGB1 molecule functions in samples of degenerating tissue and will inject the molecules into healthy tissue samples to observe their effect. 

If Chahine finds that the molecule causes disc and soft tissue degeneration, then it could lead to a new treatment, she said.  She cautioned that, in a  best-case scenario,  such a drug development process would take about 10 years to complete “efficacy and safety testing.” 

According to Chahine, a new treatment is necessary because “there is little information physicians can offer patients as far as therapy” for soft tissue and disc degeneration.

“If it doesn’t resolve at home with care like Advil then patients tend to see a specialist who might use epidural steroid injections to relieve the pain,” she said. 

“The outcomes of these injections are highly varied and unpredictable. Some respond favorably and some don’t, without clear indication of what factors matter most in helping people respond well.” 

She added, “What we’re trying to do in this study is come up with alternative therapies for people.”

Chahine said she has family members who suffer from back pain. 

“I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t suffered from it myself,” she said. 

“At some point I may have to manage my own. I don’t think anyone is immune.”


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