Professor honored with grant for bone cancer pain research

by Nick Busse

University professor Patrick Mantyh is an expert on pain.
For years, Mantyh has led the fight against the severe and often debilitating pain associated with bone cancer.
His research has given new hope to bone cancer patients and earned him national recognition.
In December, Mantyh received the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institutes of Health. The Javits award is a grant given to researchers selected by the National Advisory Neurological Disorders and Stroke Council.
According to the NIH, awardees must demonstrate a record of “exceptional scientific excellence and productivity,” have proposals of “the highest scientific merit” and be judged as highly likely to do cutting-edge research during the seven-year period for which the grant lasts.
With its award, the NIH recognized Mantyh’s contributions to bone cancer research.
Bone cancer often results when other types of cancer, such as cancer of the breast, prostate, ovary or lungs, metastasizes and spreads to the bone. The resulting pain is, according to Mantyh, “some of the most severe known to man.”
Bone cancer patients are often given large doses of opiates like morphine to ease their suffering. The side effects of these drugs can overwhelm and sedate the individual, significantly reducing the quality of life.
Mantyh’s research focuses on attacking bone cancer pain at its source, lessening the need for drugs.
Last year Mantyh’s team discovered that the principle source of bone cancer pain is overactive bone destroying cells, known as osteoclasts. These cells, Mantyh found, can be inhibited by the introduction of a chemical called osteoprotegerin.
With the Javits grant as fuel, Mantyh hopes to combine this new model of bone cancer pain with the results of a previous study conducted on rats to create effective new treatment options for cancer patients.
“Essentially what NIH is trying to do with the Javits award is to give the person money so they can pursue the science, as opposed to filling out the paperwork and applying for the grant,” Mantyh said.
In 1999, Mantyh’s team conducted a study on rats in which they found they could alleviate two of the most severe types of pain: inflammatory pain and pain due to nerve injury. The treatment they developed leaves intact responsiveness to milder forms of pain, as well as pain medication.
Research like this holds special promise for clinical doctors like Denis R. Clohisy, with whom Mantyh often collaborates.
Clohisy, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery and someone who regularly works with cancer patients, might someday be able to use Mantyh’s research to treat patients under his care.
Mantyh, 47, said the key to his research is the excellence of his lab team.
“This lab is the best one I’ve ever been able to put together,” said Mantyh. “In large part it’s because of the quality and dedication of the students.”
In the wake of Gov. Jesse Ventura’s proposed budget for the state’s institutions of higher education, Mantyh said he is concerned about the quality of research at the University.
“I’ve lost some of my best students who’ve gone to other places to receive further training, and I think we could’ve retained them,” Mantyh said.
“Ultimately,” Mantyh continued, “the issue is going to be: does the state of Minnesota want a first-class research institution, where its sons and daughters can learn about research? Or do we want a trade school?”
Mantyh said he has received offers to continue his research at other universities but prefers to remain in Minnesota. He also said the ability of the University to retain top-notch students and faculty is essential to producing novel therapies.
“The medical center provides a place where a surgeon like (Clohisy) and a scientist like myself can interact,” Mantyh said. “If this place goes downhill, as far as not having high quality investigators and high quality clinics, that interaction will not occur.”
Mantyh received his doctoral degree from the University of California-San Diego and completed post-doctorate work at Cambridge University. He has also served as an assistant and associate professor at UCLA.

Nick Busse covers University faculty and welcomes comments at [email protected]