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  • 9/23
Treating Pain
Treating Pain
Dean Develops Tool for Pain, with a Nod from Shark Tank

Julie Pilitsis, M.D., Ph.D. Photography by Katarzyna Bytnar

By Bethany Augliere

More than 100 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain and current treatment is invasive and doesn’t always work, according to Julie Pilitsis, M.D., Ph.D., dean and vice president for medical affairs in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine. But, Pilitsis is working on a product that will change that.

“I have always been passionate about advancing technology to help treat chronic pain,” she said.

Pilitsis, along with a team of collaborators, are developing a handheld probe to provide a non-invasive, non-opioid-based treatment for chronic pain, also referred to as neuropathic pain, for use in a physician’s office or potentially at home. Neuropathic pain occurs if the nervous system is damaged or not working correctly. Pain is felt from any of the various levels of the nervous system from the peripheral nerves to the spinal cord and the brain, she said. The project is titled “External Low-intensity Focused Ultrasound Device for Treatment of Neuropathic Pain.”

For this project, Pilitsis, who is also a faculty member of the Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute and mentor for Ph.D. trainees in the FAU Neuroscience Graduate Program, is collaborating on a one-year, $100,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Blueprint for Neuroscience Research program, called Blueprint MedTech. FAU’s project is one of seven selected for the pilot phase for funding by the NIH, which received successful reviews from ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

Focused ultrasound (FUS) is a rapidly evolving, non-invasive technology that uses ultrasonic energy to target tissue deep in the body without incisions or radiation, Pilitsis said. “Though focused ultrasound has become more commonplace over the last several years, the current clinical use permanently damages tissues. Our therapy is innovative in that it is one of the few uses of low intensity focused ultrasound (LiFUS) to alter signals being sent to the brain rather than destroy tissue,” she said.

To do this, the low-intensity signal creates a target zone that the researchers can direct the energy specifically to the dorsal root ganglia, small bundles of nerves along the spine that control pain signals reaching the spinal cord. “The dorsal root ganglia is a relatively new target for treating pain as it houses many pain fibers,” she said.

The handheld applicator under development integrates ultrasound imaging and therapy and is designed to accommodate differences in human anatomical size. As a result, the treatment device and methodology will provide means for precise treatment of back and leg pain.

“Our technology is non-invasive and available to patients of all ages,” Pilitsis said. “We expect that a single three-minute treatment can lead to 30 days or more of pain relief. Due to patients not needing implants in their bodies and the ability for doctors to administer this treatment right in the office, our therapy is an affordable and accessible treatment option for chronic pain.”

Blending Sciences

Valery Forbes, Ph.D.
Valery Forbes, Ph.D. Photography by Alex Dolce

As the newly appointed dean of the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, Valery Forbes, Ph.D., leads FAU’s second largest college, which enrolls more than 8,500 students. With her 25 years of experience as an academic leader and researcher, her collaborative goals extend to the FAU Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute.

Around 30 faculty from the College of Science are affiliated with the Brain Institute, she said. These include faculty from the College of Science’s departments of chemistry and biochemistry, biological sciences, psychology and the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences.

“The value of such interdisciplinary collaborations is bringing researchers having very different areas of expertise and perspectives together in new ways,” Forbes said. “This, in my experience, increases the likelihood of truly novel breakthroughs.”

For instance, Qi Zhang, Ph.D., is a joint hire between the department of chemistry and biochemistry and the Brain Institute. Zhang and colleague Maciej Stawikowski, Ph.D., were funded by an FAU Research Cores Pilot Grant and their project on intracellular cholesterol distribution and trafficking using novel environmentally sensitive cholesterol probes was recently funded by the National Institutes of Health and has already led to an invention, she said.

“This is exactly the kind of outcome we would like to see, i.e., cross-disciplinary institutes provide seed funding as an incentive to facilitate new collaborations; the collaborations lead to successful external funding, publications, and intellectual property,” Forbes said.

“Given that many of the problems we face today are so complex that no single discipline is sufficient for solving them, the need for cross-disciplinary team science is likely to become ever more important,” she said. “This has implications for how we should be structuring our research institutions and how we should be training our students.”

Pain in the Brain

Research shows that some people have a higher pain tolerance than others, and Ilknur Telkes, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, wants to find out why.

By studying brainwaves, her research aims to understand why some patients respond well to one paradigm over another to further understanding of chronic pain, and ultimately, to design therapies tailored to each patient to improve pain relief.

To treat severe, chronic pain one option is a surgically implanted device that sends low levels of electricity directly into the spinal cord to relieve pain, called a spinal cord stimulator (SCS). Yet, determining the success of this procedure is not always feasible, Telkes said.

Considering all the advances in medicine and health care, a tool to objectively measure pain still does not exist, she said. Patients rate their pain between 0 and 10, along a visual scale that is a spectrum of smiley faces spanning happy to sad. “While these self-reports are useful, they cannot offer an objective pain assessment. This is especially important to evaluate how effective the SCS treatment is and how well the patient is responding to treatment.

Lack of objective measurements of SCS trials no doubt, in part, lead to failed permanent placements,” she said. That’s why Telkes is examining the brain waves of patients with spinal cord stimulators to develop quantified, neural signatures of pain relief.

As a faculty member of the FAU Stiles- Nicholson Brain Institute and mentor for Ph.D. trainees in the Neuroscience Graduate Program, Telkes is currently teaming up with other researchers for projects. “With its members from diverse disciplines, the Brain Institute provides a great opportunity to collaborate and to train our next-generation neuroscientists to close the gap that has

developed between the dramatic advances in biomedical discovery and meaningful clinical applications,” she said.

Before joining FAU, Telkes was a postdoctoral fellow with Julie Pilitsis, M.D., Ph.D., dean and vice president of medical affairs in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine. “She introduced me to the pain field and opened my eyes to this

common, crippling, and complex medical condition. Since then, we have been working together on

Ilknur Telkes, Ph.D.
Ilknur Telkes, Ph.D.

various projects to address pain. I am very lucky to have her as my mentor, colleague, and a role model as a scientist,” Telkes said.

Together, the women collaborate on two National Institutes of Health grants. Telkes is principal investigator on one project titled, “Assessment of EEG Responses to Spinal Cord Stimulation Waveforms in Chronic Pain Patients” and co-investigator on the other titled, “High-Resolution Spinal Cord Stimulation for Non-Opioid Treatment of Neuropathic Pain.”

For her work on these studies, she received two prestigious, national awards: the Congress of Neurological Surgeons Ronald R. Tasker Young Investigator Award (2021) and North American Neuromodulation Society Krishna Kumar New Investigator Award (2023).

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