Pain researcher wins a ‘Dora Lush’ scholarship

NeuRA’s Luke Parkitny has won a prestigious NHMRC Dora Lush scholarship to fund his PhD research into chronic pain.

Luke, a physiotherapist by training, is investigating the development of a condition called complex regional pain syndrome in people who break their wrists as well as other types of fractures.

“We don’t know exactly what causes chronic pain,” says Luke. “What we do know is that by the time the pain becomes chronic, there are many complex changes that occur. Hopefully this research will help us understand part of that complexity.”

The Dora Lush scholarships, awarded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, are named after the bacteriologist Dora Lush, who died in 1943 at age 33 from scrub typhus which she accidently caught while working on a vaccine for the disease.

The scholarships are awarded each year to top ranked NHMRC scholarship applicants to help recipients gain experience in biomedical research.

Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) affects more than 5,000 Australians each year, and can occur after virtually any physically traumatic event. About 5% of people with wrist fractures develop the syndrome.

People with CRPS often experience severe symptoms such as heightened pain and swelling, redness, heat and sweating of the affected area and poor movement. Localised osteoporosis can occur in the longer-term.

“The pain doesn’t make sense when you look at the original injury,” says Luke. “We want to know what the early triggers are in this condition, so that we can start to work on prevention strategies.”

Luke will be taking blood samples from over 1000 people with wrist fractures to see whether those people who develop CRPS show an abnormal inflammatory response compared to those who recover normally.

“The body may throw out too many inflammatory factors or maybe doesn’t inhibit them well enough,” he says. “That might lead to increased pain and, in certain people, perhaps lead to the development of this condition.”

Luke says that because we know relatively little about the developmental stages of chronic pain, there’s a lot of work to be done in pain research.

“Sometimes you can throw a whole lot of treatments at someone in pain and they don’t feel any better,” he says.

“Modern treatment approaches are frequently multifaceted; pain is complex after all and requires approaches that are targeted to the needs of the patient. Through our work, we are hoping to start to unravel some more potential avenues for intervention.”