Bio science professor receives research grant

03/21/2019

Liza Zulick | Staff Writer

Duquesne University’s biological sciences professor, Benedict Kolber, was awarded a $1.5 million grant for research on chronic bladder pain by the National Institute of Health R01. The award given to Kolber was from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases.

After four years of working on the grant, the project, “Impact of amygdala lateralization on processing and modulations of bladder pain,” was given a five year grant to continue research.

The grant, awarded in August 2018, will be used to study chronic bladder pain and how the brain modulates bladder pain on the left and right sides of the brain, both sides of the brain have different controls.

According to the Interstitial Cystitis Association, bladder pain affects up to six percent of middle aged women, as well as some men.

Although there are treatments for chronic bladder pain like Aspirin, Tylenol, narcotics, lidocaine through catheterization and even physical therapy — they are known to be largely ineffective.

“Our goals are to try to identify the cells in the left side of the brain and the right side of the brain that are modulating bladder pain. The long term goal of identifying those types of cells are giving us new targets for chronic bladder pain treatment,” Kolber said.

The process of filing for a grant has many steps. After submitting a grant, the grant gets assigned to a group of scientists in a study section, which includes experts in the field from the government, academia and the industry. Next, scientific experts in the field come together with review criteria and discuss the grant. Since the NIH has specific institutes for types of diseases, the grants are broken up into these sections.

“For me, pain was just an interesting biological phenomenon because everyone understands pain. Hopefully people have just felt acute pain, but many people have felt chronic pain,” Kolber said. “It’s also interesting because it impacts every aspect of your life. We don’t know as much about it as we should and the treatments we have ineffective.”

Professor of Mathematics and computer science, Rachael Miller Neilan, also works with Kolber to create a computational model of the brain’s response to bladder pain. The model shows the progression of bladder pain and chronic bladder pain over time.

“During this time, we worked closely with Dr. Kolber to understand how neurons respond to bladder stimuli and the experiments he conducts in his lab” Miller Neilan said. “With this information, we formulated mathematical equations quantifying the firing rates of different types of neurons over time and in response to bladder stimuli. We then simulated the behavior of hundreds of neurons over time and used the system-level properties to predict when pain occurs. Our model was able to successfully reproduced results observed in his lab.”

Over the next several years, the model will incorporate additional data collected from Kolber’s lab with the funding of this grant.

“Our computational model is important because it allows us to simulate scenarios that Dr. Kolber cannot explore in the lab,” Miller Neilan said. “Each of his lab experiments requires a lot of time and can be costly, but the model can simulate scenarios and predict pain levels within minutes. Using the model, we are able to inform Dr. Kolber what outcomes he might observe during an experiment and help him design experiments that will lead to useful results.”

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