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Sarah Bernhard

Predoctoral Fellowship in Drug Discovery, 2022 Washington University in St. Louis

Developing Effective Chronic Pain Treatments with Reduced Side Effects


Chronic pain is a major reason why adults seek medical attention, but current treatments are often ineffective or have unwanted side effects. Many prescribed pain medications work by activating mu opioid receptors (MORs) on the outside of nerve cells. When opioids attach to these receptors, they trigger chemical changes that lead to feelings of pain relief and pleasure. While MORs can help relieve chronic pain, their activation can also cause negative side effects like addiction and trouble breathing, which can be fatal in cases of overdose.

My research focuses on delta opioid receptors (DORs), which are in the same family as MORs but are associated with fewer side effects. While DORs can relieve chronic pain, their activation can sometimes trigger seizures, limiting their potential as a target for new drugs. My study aims to investigate the mechanisms that cause seizure symptoms of DOR drugs using human cell lines and develop new seizure-free DOR drugs. Through this study, we hope to develop safer and more effective treatments for chronic pain.

Receiving the PhRMA Foundation’s predoctoral fellowship in drug discovery will play a pivotal role in enhancing my training and shaping my research career. With this award, I can explore the development of new analgesics for chronic pain treatment.

Sarah Bernhard