How this researcher is collaborating against pain

15 April 2020:

Pain is one of the most complicated ailments to treat because the symptoms and severity are subjective and current medications are associated with a variety of problems including addiction and abuse. This makes it tough for doctors to accurately assess patient’s pain levels and prescribe the best pain management tool for the individual. The complex mechanisms underlying pain are the reason why researchers can take decades to develop new treatments.

Dr Sanam Mustafa, a senior research associate at the Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) at the University of Adelaide and STA Superstar of STEM, is developing tools to understand the molecular mechanisms resulting in pain. Her research aims to develop a test to objectively quantify pain and design novel pain management therapies that do not result in addictive behaviours.

Using hyperspectral imaging – a technique that breaks an image down into tens or hundreds of colours – Mustafa is uncovering the metabolic signatures of pain. It’s hoped the process can be translated into a bedside device to quantify a patient’s pain level allowing a personalised pain management regime to be prescribed.

Sanam and colleagues, behind the scenes from a news-story photoshoot

The key to understanding pain and developing smarter pain medications is drawing from all kinds of scientific expertise, says Mustafa. The CNBP’s focus on multidisciplinary research has helped her see things through fresh eyes.

“Nature isn’t divided into neat little disciplines and divisions, so we can’t expect to solve major problems by just using biology or chemistry,” she says. “We have got to come together and break down each problem and look at it from a different perspective.”

Mustafa brings this passion for collaboration to her role as Chair of BLiSS Adelaide, an organisation which empowers early and mid-career researchers to expand the boundaries of their work by applying expertise far beyond their own field to solve real world problems in an innovative way.

“I wanted to be part of BLiSS because I realised how lucky I was to be part of a multidisciplinary centre at CNBP,” she says. “When you’re in a room with a physicist, a chemist, and an engineer, ideas that come out of those conversations are so unique. Everyone should be a part of something like that. You need to look beyond your own discipline and push the boundaries in order to achieve something amazing.”

“This is an opportunity to give back,” she says. “As a researcher, you can’t just be an academic – you need a whole bunch of skills. It’s about carving out opportunities and surrounding yourself with people who can support you.”

Sanam (R) and colleague at the CNBP conference in 2018

Embracing a multidisciplinary approach has had a major impact on Mustafa’s career, and helped drive her current research investigating new kinds of light-activated pain treatments, which can be targeted to avoid major side effects experienced by current opioid based interventions.

“I’m working with chemists on these photo-activated drugs,” she says. “Chemistry was one my hardest subjects at school, and I thought I’d stay far away from it in my career. But it turns out, if I collaborate with the right people, I can do some science that I never imagined I could do.”