Pain: Symptom or disease?

(written as part of a Community Knowledge Initiative (CKI) module)

Dr David Finn

Dr David Finn

When I interviewed Dr. David Finn of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at NUI, Galway, I alluded at first to a statement I found in one of his recently published papers: “The study of stress-induced analgesia has enhanced our understanding of the fundamental physiology of pain and stress and can be a useful approach for uncovering new therapeutic targets for the treatment of pain and stress-related disorders.”

I asked him if this was his main goal. He confirmed that the research carried out in his lab is focused on increasing our fundamental understanding of what pain is, but is also driven by a strong desire to discover new and more effective ways to treat pain.

“What do you think pain is?” he asked me.

“A symptom of disease,” I confidently replied.

Dr Finn highlighted to me the case of a car crash victim. Firstly, of course, there is tissue damage done to his body which gives him severe pain, but months later when the doctor has told him his body has fully repaired itself, the patient still feels pain. With seemingly neither disease nor obvious causes of pain, the patient still suffers. This, he informed me, was an example of chronic pain.

Although those who endure diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis suffer from pain as a symptom, the pain described above, and which can develop in the absence of a recognised disease state or persist beyond tissue repair, can best be described as a disease itself. Recent data from the Centre of Pain Research, Galway suggests that this disease may affect up to one in three people in Ireland.

Dr Finn is not alone. Together with Dr Brian McGuire, in 2007 they both founded and now jointly direct the only Centre for Pain Research in Ireland, which is located on the NUI, Galway campus. This centre brings together the researchers, doctors and nurses of NUI, Galway and UCHG. It is their desire to study how pain occurs, is prolonged and is suppressed naturally in the body, with the long-term goal of more effective and efficient analgesics than the ones currently on the market.

Dr Finn is a recipient of the President of Ireland Young Researcher Award and Principal Investigator Awards from Science Foundation Ireland, the Wyeth Award for research in Preclinical Psychopharmacology from the British Association for Psychopharmacology and the Pain Research Medal from the Irish Pain Society. These accolades came with research funding to sustain an additional five years of research in this area.

At a young age, Dr Finn has become a highly respected researcher and lecturer within and outside the university. He is also an esteemed member of prestigious councils of neuroscience nationally and internationally.

“None of this research would be possible” he reminded me “without a strong research team comprised of postgraduate students, postdoctoral researchers and collaborators as well as funding from Science Foundation Ireland, the Health Research Board, Higher Education Authority, International Association for the Study of Pain, IRCSET, and industry funding”. Together these sources have funded his research team to the tune of €3.5 million over the last six years.

“What drives you to do this work?” I wondered.

He simply replied that the sheer thrill of discovering things that were never explained nor described is the single most important factor driving him to carry on researching in this area of science, where he undoubtedly prevails.

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