January 29, 2014

Carrie Bebermeyer

Pain Researcher Daniela Salvemini Named Fellow of Academy of Science

Salvemini will be honored for her contribution to our understanding of pain

Daniela Salvemini, Ph.D., professor of pharmacological and physiological sciences at SLU, has been honored by the Academy of Science of St. Louis, an organization that works to promote the advancement and understanding of science and technology in the region. The Fellows Award, which recognizes a distinguished individual for outstanding achievement in science, will be given to Salvemini for her contribution to our understanding of pain.

Daniela Salvemini, professor of pharmacological and physiological sciences at SLU

“Dr. Salvemini has contributed more to the eventual control of pain and opioid induced tolerance than anyone else currently working in the field,” the Academy notes.

Read about Salvemini’s recent grants, breakthrough findings, and proof-of-concept clinical trial.

Salvemini’s notable career includes studying with a Nobel Laureate, discovering peroxynitrite, a key molecule in the development of pain and inflammation, and uncovering some of the reasons why certain chemotherapy drugs can cause patients extreme and lasting pain.

The impact of mentors
Salvemini credits her interest in the field of pain and inflammation to two mentors. She worked first with professor Jack Botting at Kings College in London during her undergraduate studies. During her graduate and postdoctoral fellowship at William Harvey Research Institute in London, her mentor was Nobel Laureate professor Sir John Vane, FRS.

As she reflects on her career, Salvemini is quick to acknowledge the support she's received in her professional and personal life.

“Many things contributed to my success. I was blessed to have had mentors that helped me throughout my career path, a family that has been so supportive and passionate about what I do, amazing collaborators, friends and advocates that have joined me in this adventure over the years and bright dedicated young scientists. They have all contributed to the success of my work,” Salvemini said.

The question that launched a career
While studying with top scientists may have piqued her interest in pain research, the turning point that cemented her focus happened in 1993. Salvemini’s mother asked her a question: Why could her good friend who had been diagnosed with breast cancer not find pain relief despite the fact that that she was on potent painkillers? Salvemini found that she did not have an answer.

"So, yes I do have a sense of urgency -- I don't want people to be in pain-- and therefore I have made it my mission to discover drugs that can effectively abrogate pain."

As she looked into the question, Salvemini quickly realized how poorly understood  pain is. Hooked, she made it her scientific priority to discover better painkillers to help patients in pain or to come up with something new that could be given with opioids to make them work better without side effects.

Salvemini’s work led her to make many discoveries about the way pain occurs in the body.

"Through years of research we discovered that a little free radical called superoxide, the precursor in the formation of peroxynitrite, a really damaging agent, was the culprit in the development of opioid induced pain, what my mother's friend was going through, and in the development of chronic neuropathic pain of several etiologies -- in particular, chemotherapy induced pain," Salvemini said. "We are now dissecting the molecular signaling pathways that are involved and so forth and the research is blooming, but that question was the trigger.

“I don’t know why that particular question, and not others, motivated me to pursue it. It just did and I am grateful.”

A sense of urgency
Salvemini is driven, working with an sense of urgency as she applies for grants, seeks out the pathways that could answer some of the questions surrounding pain, and partners with physicians to set up clinical trials.

“Chronic pain is a huge problem-- for the patient, the caregiver, the family, the doctors,” Salvemini said. “We have limited options and the most effective drugs can ultimately be detrimental to the overall treatment.

“So, yes I do have a sense of urgency – I don’t want people to be in pain-- and therefore I have made it my mission to discover drugs that can effectively abrogate pain.”

Salvemini is aiming to find a way to block the pathway that allows tolerance to opiods, causing them to quit working, and to block the pain caused by some chemotherapy drugs.

"You have to love what you do. Be dedicated, passionate, hard-working and have sense of urgency. Never give up."

“The objective here is to hopefully allow the patient to receive a full cycle of chemotherapy, thus allowing for better anti-cancer action and importantly to reduce the incidence of patients that do develop severe pain.

“In some patients neuropathic pain persists for life and the impact in quality of life is huge. Our hope is to be able to prevent this from happening in the first place and if it does happen, then to be able to reverse it.

“That is my goal on the horizon. The data from the preclinical studies are exciting, so we are getting closer and closer. Now we need to translate and for that we will need help from our pharmaceutical partners.”

Coming Full Circle
Now, Salvemini is the mentor, teaching students at all levels as they work in her lab. She offers this advice for those considering a career in research:

“You have to love what you do. Be dedicated, passionate, hard-working and have sense of urgency. Never give up. This is important, because a career in research, especially in these times, is very hard. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes (these are so important), ask for advice, accept suggestions, acknowledge others and don’t take things for granted. And most importantly, always be true to yourself.

“You cannot go through this journey alone and we still have a lot more to do. Although it is a hard journey, I have been able to discover and contribute so as to make a difference in this world, and that, in my mind, is a great gift.”

The awards will be presented at the annual dinner on April 9, 2014 at the Chase Park Plaza, focusing the region's attention upon individuals and institutions known worldwide for their scientific contributions to research, industry, and quality of life. Dinner tickets and tributes for the event are available through the Academy of Science-St. Louis website www.academyofsciencestl.org or by contacting Peggy James Nacke at 314-533-8291.

Read about last year’s honorees from Saint Louis University.

Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: cancer, liver disease, heart/lung disease, aging and brain disease, and infectious disease.

Since its inception, the Academy has promoted the recognition of the impressive scientists of St. Louis. This year, the 20th Annual Outstanding St. Louis Scientist Awards honors award-winners who represent both an extraordinary caliber of expertise and a dedication to fostering science literacy.

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