Why does sickle cell hurt? Researcher to study pain of the disease

The Medical College of Wisconsin has received a five-year, $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to study the underlying causes of pain in sickle cell disease.

Cheryl Stucky, PhD, professor of cell biology, neurobiology and anatomy and Director of the Neuroscience Doctoral Program at MCW, is the principle investigator of the grant.

Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) is a common blood disorder that affects millions of people around the world, and is particularly common in the United States in African Americans.  The disease is characterized by sickle-shaped red blood cells, which causes a constant shortage of red blood cells and the sickled cells become stuck in blood vessels, clogging blood flow.  SCD is also accompanied by crippling pain that tends to increase in severity and frequency with age.  However, the exact cause of that pain is unknown.

Dr. Stucky has found that mice with severe SCD have severely dysfunctional mitochondria in their sensory neurons, which is likely affiliated with the pain and sensitivity to touch and cold temperatures in patients with SCD.  She believes that the reactive oxygen species generation that occurs in SCD causes that mitochondrial dysfunction.  In this project, Dr. Stucky, together with co-investigator Cheryl Hillery, MD, will evaluate this hypothesis and also determine whether treatment with mitochondrial-targeted antioxidants reverses the pain in mice with SCD.

By gleaning a better understanding of the precise nerve cells and pathways that sense and influence the pain of SCD, the researchers hope to identify new methods to treat the disease more safely and effectively in patients.

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