By Willem Laursen ’11
National Institutes of Health
Chronic pain is a debilitating condition that affects millions of people worldwide. The perception of pain is often very useful in that it signals a problem or protects us from harm, e.g., touching a hot stove or running with a broken leg. However, pain can also detract significantly from quality of life, as in cases of arthritis, fibromyalgia, and diabetic neuropathy. Therapeutics seek to control this “out of control” pain, but it is not currently successful against all types of pain. Even in cases where painkillers are relatively successful, there are many problems associated with their use—not the least of which are tolerance buildup, addiction, and toxicity.
My first-year course introduced me to the elegant and extremely complex network that is the central nervous system.
Research in Professor Lin Aanonsen’s neuropharmacology lab seeks to circumvent some of these well known problems with current analgesics. My project attempted to use siRNA and genetic approaches to locally knock down the production of two enzymes that we believe are involved in processing the pain signal before it reaches the brain.
Before Macalester, I had taken very minimal courses in the natural sciences and had no laboratory experience. I was officially listed as an “undecided” major and was more than a little intimidated by the prospect of choosing one. My chosen first-year course was called "Biological Basis of Therapeutics." It seemed interesting, but I didn’t think of it as the first step toward a biology major. However, that class introduced me to the elegant and extremely complex network that is the central nervous system, and I was hooked.
Since then, I have continued taking biology courses to learn more about the nervous system, its molecules and cells. Subsequently I have discovered a deep appreciation for chemistry and scientific exploration in general.
The professors at Mac have been invaluable in helping me discover interests I never knew I had.