By Andy Steiner ’90

Carolyn Fairbanks ’91 talks about the human brain the way an English professor talks about a Shakespeare sonnet or an art historian speaks about an ancient fresco: with deep knowledge, reverence, and an enthusiasm that sometimes borders on obsession.

Fairbanks, a professor of pharmaceutics, pharmacology, and neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, has been working to understand the brain’s complexities for more than two decades, ever since coming to Macalester in the mid-’80s to study biology. And now, 30 years later, she is doing research into pain relief alternatives to opioids—which, given the addiction crisis, is clearly one of our era’s most vital scientific and public health challenges.

Talking to Fairbanks now, it’s hard to imagine there ever was a time when the Rochester, Minn., native wasn’t tuned into brain research, yet she can pinpoint the moment when her interest was kindled: when she took the late Walt Mink’s class on neuropharmacology at Macalester. “He made a big impression,” she says, adding that biology professor Lin Aanonsen later helped cement her interest in neuroscience. “Just being part of that academic environment, things started to click, and I felt really excited about the brain. I had to learn more.”

And learn she did. Following a short stint at the St. Paul Department of Public Health, Fairbanks pursued a PhD in the University of Minnesota’s pharmacology graduate program in the medical school after being recruited by an addiction researcher she met in another course. She also quickly identified her focus: Fairbanks joined a pain research group working to find non-addictive pharmacological treatments for chronic and end-of-life pain.

“Part of my interest stemmed from the fact that at the time, good pain medication prescribing was very restricted,” Fairbanks recalls. “There were people I knew and loved whose end-of-life pain-medication needs were just not being met. And that was a common experience: Just like now, physicians were afraid to prescribe these drugs and people were afraid to take them.”

After completing a PhD, Fairbanks was hired by the university’s College of Pharmacy. Today she’s one of their stars, responsible for the neuropharmacology curriculum and for supervising a growing cadre of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Over the years, Fairbanks’s research has remained laserfocused. Her latest scholarship centers on developing ways to reduce brain exposure to highly addictive, opioid-based painrelieving drugs.

Opioids play an important role in pain relief, Fairbanks believes, but as a pharmacologist with a background in public health, she also understands the importance of developing less-addictive pain medications for people whose diseases are not life-threatening or who are at higher risk of addiction. “Though opioids are the strongest pain relievers out there, we still have the problem of trying to improve pain management,” she says. “And now we have the added challenge of trying to find safer ways to deliver these medications, and maybe different types of pain medications or treatments designed to deal with different types of pain.”

One concept Fairbanks considers particularly promising is the idea of using gene modification techniques to reduce the body’s response to pain. Although the idea is still in its infancy, Fairbanks explains that it would involve “modifying the genes of the different cell types that contribute to the pain pathway so that they would instead produce analgesic substances, like endorphins.” This approach has the appeal of serious outside-the-box thinking, involving engineering peripheral or spinal-cord neurons to produce signals that would halt pain impulses before they get to the brain.

One major downside? Potentially erasing a person’s ability to feel pain. “Pain is an important protective factor,” Fairbanks says. “We must maintain our sensation of pain in order to avoid damaging stimuli. We need pain, but we also need to learn how to control it.”

To master addiction-free pain control, Fairbanks must relentlessly study the brain to figure out safe and effective pharmacological solutions. She feels she’s close, but she knows it’s not going to be easy.

For some, years of such intense study could be mind-numbing, but for Fairbanks it has had the opposite effect. The more she studies the brain, the more she appreciates its beauty. She can’t imagine ever tiring of trying to understand how it works. “When you look at how complex the brain’s wiring is and how communication takes place within it, you want to learn more,” she says. “The truth is, anatomy and the art of the brain are just so beautiful.”

Last year, the University of Minnesota hosted an exhibit of century-old drawings by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a Spanish artist and scientist known as the father of neuroscience. Fairbanks was inspired by Cajal’s intricate and accurate drawings of the central nervous system, created as a record of images viewed through his rudimentary microscope. She was particularly taken by this quote of Cajal’s that appeared in the exhibit: “Like the entomologist in search of colorful butterflies, my attention has chased, in gardens of gray matter, cells with delicate and elegant shapes, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, whose beating wings may one day reveal to us the secrets of the mind.”

Fairbanks, too, is seeking that rare butterfly, hoping that something significant will one day come of her years of focus on the brain. “If my colleagues and I can in some way alleviate chronic pain, that will be my greatest accomplishment,” she says. “It’s a big goal, I know. But wouldn’t it be beautiful if we could achieve it?”

Andy Steiner ’90 is a St. Paul writer and editor.

April 27 2018

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