Gregory Scherrer, PharmD, PhD, associate professor of cell biology and physiology and member of the UNC Neuroscience Center, received a Director’s Award for Excellence in Research, and Sarah Linnstaedt, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology, earned an honorable mention for the Director’s Trailblazer award.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The Helping to End Addiction Long-term® Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative®, Director’s Awards recognize researchers for excellence in Research, Mentorship, Interdisciplinary Collaboration, and Community Partnership. Researchers in the early to middle stages of their careers are recognized with a Trailblazer Award or honorable mention.
Two faculty members in the UNC School of Medicine were recognized. Gregory Scherrer, PharmD, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology and member of the UNC Neuroscience Center, earned a Director’s Award for Excellence in Research. Sarah Linnstaedt, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, earned an honorable mention for the Director’s Trailblazer award.
Dr. Rebecca G. Baker, director of the NIH HEAL Initiative, presented the inaugural Director’s Awards at the 4th Annual NIH HEAL Initiative Investigator Meeting in February.
Gregory Scherrer, PhD
The NIH HEAL Initiative® Director’s Award for Excellence in Research recognizes HEAL-funded investigators who exemplify research excellence and have had a major, transformative impact on the pain and addiction research fields, support broad dissemination of key research, and demonstrate leadership in the scientific community.
Scherrer investigates the mechanisms that underlie pain perception and its modulation by opioids. More specifically, he studies the sensory, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of pain, and how opioids act in neural circuits to produce pain relief and their harmful side effects such as tolerance, addiction, and respiratory depression. Armed with a better understanding of the underlying biology, the Scherrer lab is pursuing new ways to block pain without causing significant side effects, and novel treatments against opioid addiction and overdose death.
In 2020, Scherrer’s lab received a $2.8-million, four-year NIH grant to investigate mechanisms responsible for generating the unpleasant quality of pain in the brain and the emotional suffering that play significant roles in chronic pain, a condition that affects about 100 million people in the United States alone.
For its work on opioids, the lab received another NIH grant in 2021 – $7 million over five years – for an interdisciplinary project to generate and make publicly available an exceptional resource for the opioid research field: a comprehensive accounting of the various brain cell types that express each of the opioid receptors and make them sensitive to opioids, as well as the cell-type-specific molecular changes that occur when these brain cells are exposed to opioids during pain treatment or during opioid abuse and addiction.
In addition to NIH support, Scherrer’s research is also funded by awards from foundations such as the New York Stem Cell Foundation – Robertson Neuroscience Investigator award, the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience award, the Brain Research Foundation Scientific Innovator award, as well as by UNC’s Yang Family Biomedical Scholar Program and Eshelman Institute for Innovation.
Together research projects ongoing in the Scherrer lab may lead to the development of a novel type of pain killers that will be more efficient against chronic pain and safer than opioids, and of treatments that can prevent or treat opioid use disorders.
Sarah Linnstaedt, PhD
The NIH HEAL Initiative® Director’s Trailblazer Award recognizes HEAL-funded researchers in the early to middle stages of their careers, across all disciplines, who are applying an innovative approach or creativity in their research or are expanding HEAL research into addressing the pain and opioid crisis in new directions. The 2023 awardees demonstrate the ability to develop or apply novel techniques, approaches, models, or methodologies to HEAL research.
The research in Dr. Linnstaedt’s lab focuses on the identification of novel therapeutic targets for the prevention and treatment of a common and morbid type of pain, posttraumatic chronic pain. Her lab uses translational research methods that include human cohort-based discovery, behavioral model work, and molecular/cell culture studies. These focused discovery efforts have identified several new therapeutic strategies with promise for safe and non-addictive chronic pain treatment.
In 2020, Dr. Linnstaedt’s lab received a 2.5 million, four year NIH HEAL grant to investigate a key mediator of the physiological stress response as a novel therapeutic target for the prevention of posttraumatic chronic pain. Her lab has also received multiple additional public and private grant awards to fund other areas of discovery related to chronic pain prevention.
Read about other NIH HEAL award recipients here.
About the NIH HEAL Initiative®: The Helping to End Addiction Long-term® Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative®, is an aggressive, trans-NIH effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis. Launched in April 2018, the initiative is focused on improving prevention and treatment strategies for opioid misuse and addiction, and enhancing pain management. For more information, visit: https://heal.nih.gov.