Can you describe your project?
Jay Parrish: We aim to understand the contributions of skin cells to pain. Our skin provides a durable, waterproof barrier to environmental insults and is innervated by somatosensory neurons that shape our experience of the world, allowing for perception and discrimination of pain, touch, pressure and movement. Among these, pain is of particular interest, both because of its adverse influence on quality of life and because of the highly subjective nature of pain. Recent studies suggest that skin cells can act as primary sensors of noxious stimuli and can directly modulate somatosensory neuron activity. But mechanisms of sensory detection and neuronal modulation by epidermal cells are largely unknown. The molecular building blocks for nociception are highly conserved throughout evolution; therefore, my lab exploits the genetically tractable fruit fly Drosophila to identify epidermal responses to noxious stimuli and epidermal signals that influence nociceptive (pain-sensing) neuron function.
What difference could breakthroughs in this area mean for people seeking care?
Jay Parrish: Epidermal cells provide the first point of contact for sensory stimuli, but the molecular mechanisms by which epidermal cells respond to noxious stimuli are largely unknown. This gap in our knowledge is particularly significant given the prevalence of pathological skin conditions associated with debilitating pain. As a result, epidermal cells represent a largely underdeveloped target for pain therapeutics. Drugs targeting opioid receptors are still a primary therapeutic option for intractable pain. This is in spite of opioid drugs’ high potential for abuse, the increasing prevalence of opioid addiction, and numerous side effects due to opioids’ multiple sites of action in the central nervous system. Thus, we propose that unraveling peripheral sensory mechanisms of pain will address an urgent medical need to identify new pain targets.
What first got you interested in the field of pain medicine?
Jay Parrish: For more than 20 years my research has focused on development of somatosensory neurons, beginning with graduate work on control of cell death in these neurons. In my postdoctoral studies, I explored mechanisms of growth control in somatosensory neurons, with a particular focus on how sensory neuron growth is coordinated with skin expansion during organism growth. These studies spurred an interest in skin cell biology, and early work in my lab identified specialized terminal structures in which skin cells physically enclose pain-sensing neurons. This anatomical coupling of skin cells and pain-sensing neurons led us to explore active roles for skin cells in sensing and responding to noxious stimuli. To test this hypothesis, we engineered a strain of fruit flies in which skin cells could be stimulated with light stimulus that is normally innocuous to flies. Remarkably, stimulating these light-responsive skin cells elicited nociceptive behavior output in flies, demonstrating that skin cells can directly activate pain-sensing neurons in flies. Our current studies in the lab build on these exciting observations.
What are your career goals — what’s next for you?
Jay Parrish: My long-term goal is to understand how environmental signals shape somatosensory neuron structure and function, using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as an engine for discovery. Currently, our studies focus on the roles that non-neuronal cells in the periphery, most notably epidermal cells in the skin, play in shaping sensory transduction. We recently began a new collaboration using primary human keratinocytes and pre-clinical mouse models of acute and chronic pain to determine whether findings from our fly studies identify evolutionarily conserved epidermal mechanisms of pain transduction.
How does grant funding and philanthropy impact your work?
Jay Parrish: Our research program depends entirely on extramural funding, which provides the support necessary for both laboratory staff and daily laboratory operations. While there are a variety of large funding agencies that support biomedical research (NIH, for example), funding awards that support the work required to cultivate new projects, in particular to support “proof-of-concept” studies of new ideas, are rare. The Scan Design award fills this gap, providing us with the support we need to develop an exciting new idea into a project that will be competitive for federal funding.