UNM Rainforest Innovations

Relieving chronic pain and understanding the complex mechanisms of the pain system have been at the forefront of Dr. Karin Westlund High’s research activities. Her work to find effective, non-opioid therapeutics is on the path to being realized: a life goal she never thought she would be able to reach.

Her research fights against the devastating effects and social consequences of opioid addiction and dependence around the world and right here in New Mexico. Effective non-opiate therapeutics are finally on the horizon, as well as other pharmacologics, to treat opioid addiction and provide better outcomes for those suffering with chronic pain.

Dr. Karin Westlund High’s studies have been continuously funded and have appeared in 182 published manuscripts and cited 11,674 times (H-Index 63). These studies were done with the assistance of six graduate PhD students; 15 postdoctoral, resident, medical and dental fellows; senior scientists; and collaborators. She has provided numerous contributions to the education of graduate, medical, and dental students, primarily through medical and dental neuroscience courses.

Karin is among the earliest members of the American Pain Society, the U.S. chapter of the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), which is dedicated to advancing multidisciplinary pain care, education, advocacy, and research to improve people’s quality of life. Since 2005, she has served as Associate Editor for the Pharmacology section of the IASP professional journal Pain and in 2008 she won the Fred Kerr Career Research Award given by the IASP.

She received her PhD in physiology and biophysics from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Texas. Karin is a distinguished professor and the Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Anesthesiology & Critical Care Medicine at the UNM School of Medicine, and is a Research Physiologist at the New Mexico VA Health Care System in Albuquerque.

An Innovator’s Journey

My entire lifetime has been a search. My childhood was spent in rural areas around Austin, Texas searching for fossils, artifacts, specific plants, rocks, and minerals. A lot of time was devoted to searching for these treasures while on family hikes, bike rides, camping, and botanical field trips. I even saw giant dinosaur footprints captured in stone in a dry central Texas creek bed on one of our family field trips. Another huge portion of my lifetime has been spent reading and writing. I wrote my first four by four inch, six-page book entitled ESP (Extrasensory Perception), bound in construction paper, when I was 10 years old. My favorite library books were biographies of scientists, including my hero Marie Curie, along with the little train engine that always said, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” That mantra has continued throughout my adult life of obsessively searching for a way to stop chronic pain.

After graduation at the University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in Zoology, I entered graduate school at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. Galveston was a mecca for neuroscience electrophysiology and neuroanatomy work on the pain system: an emerging research area in the 1980’s. In our lab, the postdoctoral fellow and I defined the cells of origin, the pathways, and the neurotransmitter content of the two major descending modulatory systems that impact incoming pain signals that enhance or decrease our perception of pain. I remained in Galveston while my husband completed his graduate and clinical training as a neuropsychologist, continuing my work exploring the pain system for 25 years while teaching neurosciences on the medical school faculty. Also, during that time, our two sons were born and my life grew to include interesting diversions like band concerts, track meets, and baseball games.

I have worked throughout my career to understand and unravel the seemingly unstoppable effects of activating the sleeping giant: the pain system. The old adage, “the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know,” definitely applies to the challenge of understanding the brain and our pain response: one of our oldest survival skills. Trying to understand pain mechanisms was a common interest of many of my collaborators, neurologists, neurosurgeons, anesthesiologists, and rheumatologists, perplexed with dealing with the fact that they had no therapeutics to treat pain other than opioid derivatives based on this 3,000-year-old remedy derived from poppy flowers. The opiate pharmacologic market was literally blossoming during that time to become the opioid epidemic we are continuing to fight today. Collaborating with these clinicians has led to the most fascinating findings of my career.

I collaborated for many years with the Director of the Galveston pain research group, Dr. Bill Willis, who had done his postdoctoral work with Nobel prize winner, Sir John Eccles, in Australia. We explored several lines of research, one related to their early work which I will describe later, but most exciting was the day Dr. Willis invited me to meet with one of the neurosurgeons who had a puzzling finding. By making a small surgical cut in the center of the spinal cord he could relieve devastating, debilitating cancer pain for his terminal patients. The pain relief for the patients reduced their requirement for high doses of morphine. Perplexing was the fact that the small cut was not in the known location of pain pathways traveling to the brain which we and others had been defining for years. I performed the surgery in rats to discover I could also eliminate pain with that narrow spinal cord incision in the same region. I performed postmortem histology on spinal cord samples from the patients of two neurosurgeons to validate their surgery sites. Most of their patients were able to quit taking morphine entirely after the surgery, including a patient who went fishing the day before he died. That is how I got hooked for life of finding a way to relieve chronic pain. Dr. Hank Nauta continued to provide this surgery for pain relief to his patients throughout his long career. We later collaborated on a project using a back pain model I devised to see if the surgical cut would be as effective for back pain.

Another project with Dr. Willis involved studying peripheral nerves. When continuously activated for 30-minutes, the peripheral nerves can start sending signals back out to an inflamed knee joint to further aggravate the swollen joint. The study attracted the attention of rheumatologist, Dr. Terry McNearney. With her, I explored injecting a viral vector into the knee joint where it acted as a minipump to provide one of our body’s own opiate hormones for pain relief and joint repair. The viral vector worked equally well to relieve pancreatitis pain and repair that site. We are continuing to study how a subunit of the neurotransmitter glutamate receptor becomes a nuclear transport signal in the cells lining the knee joint and initiates knee joint inflammation.

I am among the earliest members of the American Pain Society founded in 1977, the U.S. chapter of the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP). I have served as Associate Editor for the Pharmacology section of our IASP professional journal Pain since 2005. I won the Fred Kerr Career Research Award given by the IASP professional organization in 2008.

“Karin Westlund High was a translational thinker before Translational Science was cool. Karin has a long, strong research focus in Pain studies and has committed her expertise to the extremely “high risk” area of therapeutics for chronic pain. She has a long, strong, outstanding career of exceptional science, productive collaborations, and clearly thinking outside the box. One of her latest collaborative projects resulted in generating a fragment of a neurotransmitter receptor inserted into a modified antibody fragment, hopefully producing targeted, safer, effective, non-narcotic therapy for pain. This is a clever, innovative, therapeutic approach for reduction of chronic pain and I can’t wait to see how its – (and her) – story progresses.” – Terry McNearney, MD

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