NORTH NEWTON, KAN. Bethel College honored neuroscientist Cheryl L. Stucky March 8 for her work in pain research. She received the 2004 Bethel College Young Alumnus Award during ceremonies at the college. A 1987 Bethel College graduate currently living in Milwaukee, Wis., Stucky began pain research during a graduate program in neuroscience at the University of Minnesota where she completed her Ph.D. in 1995. She did postdoctoral studies in Germany, first at the University of Wurzburg and later at the Max Delbruck Center of Molecular Medicine in Berlin.
"This was a completely young field then and not a lot was known about pain," Stucky said.
In Bethel College’s convocation she presented information about pain and about her work in the department of cell biology, neurobiology and anatomy at the Medical College of Wisconsin and in her own pain research lab. Only 25 percent of her time is spent teaching. Most of her work centers on understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie pain.
"The way we sense pain is different for every person," Stucky said. "Persistent or chronic pain is the number one reason people visit a physician." Stucky noted that 50 percent of Americans suffer from chronic pain.
Little effective treatment for nerve injury pain has been developed. Stucky’s lab has been identifying novel targets for specific types of pain. Nociceptors, located on the dorsal root ganglia on either side of the spinal cord, are the focus of her current research although the results of her research apply to touch and pain receptors found throughout the body.
"Do different types of nociceptors mediate different types of pain? How are nociceptors altered during different types of pain? How can they be modulated? These are questions we are asking," Stucky said.
Myelinated nociceptors create the acute, sharp, prickling pain. Unmyelinated nociceptors create slow conducting, burning, aching pain.
Because mice can model human pain behavior, they are used in Stucky’s research. Their spinal root ganglia cells are isolated and examined by patch-clamp electrophysiological instruments to record their electrical responses to the pain signals. Stucky learned how to do patch-clamp recordings in Berlin.
She has developed a nerve-skin experimental cream, using a chemical in hot chili peppers.
"Neurons are excitable cells, and I’m excited about my work," she told 18 biology and natural science majors during a discussion in Wayne Wiens’s Molecular Biology of the Cell class.