Investigating gender difference in Multiple Sclerosis pain

Support from the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada helps UAlberta researchers examine gender differences in MS.

Shelby Soke - 3 October 2017

New grants from the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada will bolster multiple sclerosis research and the careers of young scientists at the University of Alberta.

Bradley Kerr, an associate professor in the Department of Anesthesiology & Pain Medicine, received a renewed Operating Research Grant, which is the driving force that keeps his lab up and running.

Kerr's lab has begun a new line of research looking at gender differences in MS pain. The team is studying female and male mice trying to understand the similarities and differences in MS pain between genders.

"This is a new adventure for us," said Kerr, who also co-leads the U of A's MS Centre. "A bunch of differences are emerging out of our studies."

Most MS research is conducted in female mice, because MS is more prevalent in females. Since pain is generated through different pathways based on gender, Kerr thought it was important to start studying MS pain in males as well.

One of the areas of the team's research is sex differences in the pain response to exercise. In initial studies examining exercise and its effect on pain in females, Kerr saw a number of benefits and the pain behavior improved. This was not the case when the studies were conducted with male mice. In fact, it turned out there was no benefit from exercise at all.

About half of patients with MS might experience the abnormal pain that Kerr's lab is studying.

Kerr says that if someone is unlucky enough to experience abnormal pain, it can be a very debilitating experience. Unfortunately, there are very few new drugs to manage it, which makes this research even more important.

Alan Wilman, professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering also received an Operating Grant from the MS Society for his project MRI of Deep Grey Matter in Multiple Sclerosis.

Supporting the future of MS research
Graduate students Ana Catuneanu and Kevin Thorburn in Kerr's lab also received Research Studentships, which will allow them to complete their respective master's degree and PhD in pharmacology.

Both Thorburn and Catuneanu completed undergraduate degrees in honors neuroscience at the U of A. Thorburn is now completing his PhD in pharmacology studying chronic facial pain in MS.
Catuneanu is looking at pain processing neurons and how those change in the development of pain states.

The group would like to thank the staff, volunteers and donors of the MS Society that make this research possible.

"Their support allows Kevin and Ana to come in every day and do their experiments and the lab to run, so we are extremely grateful," said Kerr.

He notes that the U of A has a very strong group of researchers focused on MS. The MS Centre allows Kerr's team to collaborate with different labs within the centre and the university at large.

"We're lucky to have a unique setting because there is a very active MS clinic in Edmonton," said Kerr. "Even though they're basic scientists, trainees get to interact with neurologists and patient groups."