Professor Theodore (Ted) Price is the Director of the Center for Advanced Pain Studies in the Department of Neuroscience at University of Texas at Dallas. The Center is interested in the molecular mechanisms driving the transition to chronic pain and focuses on developing novel drug therapies for chronic pain. In addition to his research work, Price has experience in ‘spinning out’ companies from his lab, including CerSci Therapeutics and Doloromics. Price is an international keynote speaker at the upcoming 43rd Annual Scientific Meeting (ASM) of the Australian Pain Society, which will be held in Canberra from April 2-5, 2023. In the lead-up to the ASM, Price spoke with Lincoln Tracy, a researcher and writer from Melbourne, Australia, discussing how Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ was an unlikely start to a career in pain research, his experiences as Editor-in-Chief for Pain Research Forum, and his love of the Dallas Mavericks. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
What was your path to pain research?
It was very indirect. I started in science – physics, specifically, as I wanted to be an astrophysicist – but eventually realised I wasn’t quite good enough at the connection between the math and the physics to make a career of it. At the time I had a really great supervisor who suggested I try neuroscience, and I absolutely loved that. After I was drawn into neuroscience, I had every intention of working on the underlying mechanisms of depression and how we could develop new antidepressants and went off to grad school to work specifically in that area. During the interview process I happened to meet Chris Flores, who would eventually become my PhD supervisor. He was such a nice guy, and their lab had a fantastic environment – so I ended up staying there for my PhD.
But even while I was doing my PhD, I wasn’t fully committed to staying in the pain field. It took me until I was doing my postdoc at McGill University to realise that pain was really for me. I think it was a combination of working with people like Fernando Cervero, Catherine Bushnell, and Jeffrey Mogil, who were all giants of the pain field and had collectively built this amazing centre. Those experiences helped me to decide that this was what I wanted to do, at least for the first part of my professional life.
What sparked your initial interest in astrophysics? Was it growing up at a time when space exploration was still quite common?
Seeing people going to space helped build that interest, but it really originated with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which came out when I was a little kid. I was a pretty little kid, but I remember watching it live on PBS with my parents and was completely blown away by it. I was hooked. It was an amazing series because it was built for everybody on the planet and everybody connected with it, which is hard for a TV show to do. But it had a giant impact on me.
What are some of the major projects you and your colleagues at the Center for Advancing Pain Studies are working on most intensely at the moment?
Our big focus is trying to obtain a detailed understanding of human peripheral pain-sensing neurons and the connections they make in the spinal cord before eventually taking this into the brain. The brain imaging people have done an amazing job, but we still don’t have a lot of details at the molecular level about the neurons that make up these pathways and circuits. We, and several other groups, have collectively developed technologies that have led to big advances in how we understand the peripheral nervous system.
The other big focus is trying to develop non-opioid therapeutics. Although there are a lot of different ways to think about treating pain, most of the group here have a neuroscience or pharmacology background – we’re more drug focused people – and so there’s a big effort to try and do better on that front. This is a big motivator for me personally, as I lived with neuropathy for a decent part of my life. I’m much better now than I have been for a long time but that personal experience motivates me.
One of the amazing things at McGill was how they integrated basic science and clinical care. This allowed me to learn how pain impacts peoples lives on a very personal level, which had a significant influence on me. I think a lot of people don’t know the impact that pain has on people’s lives because people often live with chronic pain quite silently. They don’t necessarily tell people that they have the problem. It also often drives people to decrease their social lives a lot, and that makes it so less people know about the experiences that many people have with chronic pain. I consider myself really lucky to have been trained in an environment that gave me such a strong appreciation for that. That’s another big motivator for me.
You previously served as the Editor-in-Chief for the Pain Research Forum – how did you get involved with the Editorial board, and what was your time as Editor-in-Chief like?
This is another situation where I was really lucky to have been at McGill – we got to meet all these amazing people who were involved in basically every aspect of pain and neuroscience. I can’t remember who I met that was on the editorial board initially, I think it was Catherine Bushnell, and she suggested I join the board basically from the outset of Pain Research Forum. I became quite involved with all of it pretty quickly, because I like a lot of the outreach activities PRF was doing, and became really good friends with Neil Andrews, who was the Executive Editor of PRF for nearly a decade. Neil was such a joy to work with. I’m proud of the time we had there together and how we were able to build PRF into what it is today.
You have co-founded or been involved with several companies such as Doloromics, what drives your involvement in this space?
I think that if you want to see the work that you do make it to the clinic, you really have to start commercial ventures as that’s the only way you can raise the money to turn your ideas into therapeutics. That’s been my experience in the United States, at least, and I think it’s a similar situation in Australia. As much as I love the discovery side of research, as I have moved on in my career, I’ve been motivated to try to create therapeutics that are going to help people – and I don’t see any other way to do it.
It was a steep learning curve to get involved in the commercial side of things, because we don’t train people for that in academia. I had some negative experiences initially. But I learned a lot from them, and I feel like I know my way around things and can defend myself adequately, if need be. It also helps that we have built one successful company because people can recognise our success and that we can do it. Now I really enjoy getting to work in both academic and commercial spaces. They’re very different, and the things that motivate people in each of them are different, but there’s brilliant people in both spaces.
If you had an unlimited bucket of money, what would you do as your dream research project?
I would essentially keep doing what we are already doing at Doloromics. At this point in my life, I firmly believe that personalised medicine for pain is a doable thing. And I don’t mean individual-by-individual. Rather, I’m talking about large yet focused patient groups. I think we can identify mechanistic biomarkers within those populations and target therapeutics to interrupt the way those biomarkers work. That’s exactly what we’re doing at Doloromics. While we don’t have an unlimited pot of money just yet, we do have a wonderful group of investors and we’re building a really great team. Eventually we’re going to have a chance to start building what we all believe is possible; we just need to keep committed to that idea and keep pushing the science forward as fast as we can.
It’s an incredible time to be doing that because the technologies, especially for the cellular profiling, are just amazing. It’s super exciting. Sequencing is going to get way less expensive. Proteomics are improving dramatically, and we’re moving towards single cell, or at least groups of cell proteomic technologies and all sorts of other -omics are coming behind that. There are so many huge opportunities on the horizon – none of this stuff even existed when I was a graduate student.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
I definitely should have learned to code [laughs]. As we become more and more focused on being very data-centric in the way we do our basic research, I don’t have the appropriate statistical or analytical tools to deal with a lot of what I’d like to do. So, I feel that was a mistake – not committing more to learning how to code when I was younger and more capable of learning new things.
Anyone who follows your Twitter feed can see you’re a big sports fan. Would you rather see the Dallas Mavericks win the NBA Finals, or the Dallas Cowboys win the Super Bowl?
Mavericks, for sure! I love the Cowboys, but basketball is my true love in terms of sports. I always wanted to be a better basketball player than what I was, and if you gave me the choice to do anything, it would always be to play basketball. The same goes for if you gave me the choice to watch anything – it would be the NBA. I had the pleasure of living in San Antonio when the Spurs were on top of the league, and that was great, but it’s been fun to be back in Dallas with the Mavericks playing as well as they have. It’s going to be super interesting to see what happens with Luka [Dončić] and Kyrie [Irving], now the Mavericks have just traded for Kyrie.
Lincoln Tracy is a postdoctoral research fellow at Monash University and freelance writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is a member of the Australian Pain Society and enthusiastic conference attendee. You can follow him on Twitter (@lincolntracy) or check out some of his other writing on his website.