UNE receives $5 million to support chronic pain research, industry collaboration

A student looks into a high-tech microscope at the UNE COBRE Histology and Imaging Core. Cells are displayed on a computer screen.
The five-year, $5.17 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) supports the third and final phase of the COBRE’s establishment.

The Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) for the Study of Pain and Sensory Function at the University of New England has received more than $5 million to continue its groundbreaking research in the studies of pain and novel therapeutics while driving workforce and economic development in the region.

The five-year, $5.17 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) supports the third and final phase of the COBRE’s establishment, which will cement the center as a place for research and an industry resource across Maine and New England. This latest grant brings total federal support for the center to over $25 million.  

COBRE-funded research at UNE significantly contributes to the scientific understanding of the neurobiology of chronic pain, facilitating the discovery and development of novel therapies, including new drugs and other non-pharmaceutical treatment options.

The center’s primary focus is to provide support to junior scientists as they establish independent research programs, and the center has also in recent years formed several external partnerships in industry and health care that will bolster development in those sectors for years to come. Such partnerships include Corning and the Maine Medical Center Research Institute (MMCRI). 

Students in several of UNE’s academic programs conduct research in the COBRE’s two core research facilities — the Histology and Imaging Core, which houses high-tech microscopes and imaging analysis software, and the Behavioral Core, which facilitates early drug discovery — which provide expertise, equipment, and instrumentation for cutting-edge research at the university and across the state. 

Since its inception, the COBRE has: 

  • Provided over 600 one-on-one research core training sessions for undergraduate students
  • Given over 90 undergraduates experience in a neuroscience research lab
  • Produced more than 85 research publications listing UNE students as authors on peer-reviewed publications
  • Supported 191 peer-reviewed research publications

“It is a major goal of the COBRE program to be a part of workforce training for Maine and also to be a valuable research tool that is not just internal to UNE,” said Ian Meng, Ph.D., director of the COBRE at UNE. “We want people outside UNE to see the COBRE as something that can help boost not just research at UNE but also boost the economy and biomedical science community in Maine.”

The COBRE was established in 2012 with funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). The first, five-year phase of the grant increased UNE’s capacity for research in the biomedical sciences by expanding research space at the University, recruiting new neuroscience faculty, and establishing the two research cores. In 2017, the second five-year phase of the COBRE program built a critical mass of investigators conducting research in pain and neurobiology.

Over the past 10 years, several COBRE-funded junior faculty have gone on to receive their own grants to further support pain research. Just recently, Benjamin Harrison, B.Sc., Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry and nutrition, received $1.8 million from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a division of the NIH, to develop non-opioid pain treatments through reducing the activity of pain-sensing neurons called “nociceptors.” 

Harrison said that, without support from UNE’s COBRE, his research would not have come to fruition.

“The COBRE allowed me to come work at UNE, set up a lab, hire a team, get all the materials and instrumentation needed to conduct my experiments, and apply for independent funding. If it weren’t for the COBRE, I quite simply wouldn’t be at UNE, and there’s no way I would have had the support that I have.”

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