Postdoctoral Fellow Wins Highly-Competitive Awards

Christopher Donnelly, DDS, PhD

The American Association for Dental Research (AADR) and the International Association for Dental Research (IADR) has awarded Christopher Donnelly, DDS, PhD, postdoctoral fellow with Duke Anesthesiology, first place in both the AADR Hatton Awards competition (Postdoctoral category) and the IADR Unilever Hatton Awards competition (Senior – Basic Science category) for his project, titled “STING Agonism as a Therapeutic Strategy to Treat Chronic Pain.”

Donnelly competed against 26 finalists in the AADR Hatton Awards competition. As winner of that competition, he was selected to compete among 48 individuals from 24 IADR divisions and four sections selected in the IADR Unilever Hatton Awards competition.

In Donnelly’s project, they identified a new role for a protein, called STING, in the regulation of pain. STING is a well-known activator of the innate immune system, facilitating the elimination of infectious agents (bacteria, viruses) and potentially cancerous host cells. For this reason, STING has emerged as a promising target for cancer immunotherapy. In his study, they found that activation of STING in sensory neurons can provide robust and long-lasting pain relief in several chronic pain conditions, including cancer pain. Donnelly is hopeful that they can translate these encouraging results into human patients suffering from chronic pain, with a particular emphasis on patients suffering from severe and debilitating cancer pain. STING-based “neuroimmune” therapies could even provide a “two birds, one stone” approach to treating both the cancer itself and cancer-associated pain.

“I’m really fortunate to have been selected for both of these awards. At my career stage, this is considered one of the top honors a trainee can win in the field of dental and craniofacial research,” says Donnelly, a member of Dr. Ru-Rong Ji’s Sensory Plasticity and Pain Research Laboratory. He went on to say, “This project has been a huge undertaking by myself and many others. I’m happy to be recognized, but to me it’s more important to emphasize the contribution of my incredible mentors and collaborators, including Drs. Ji and William Maixner (Duke Anesthesiology), our collaborator at Wake Forest University, Dr. Mei-Chuan Ko, and my mentor at University of Michigan, Dr. Yu Lei, who helped inspire the project. I also want to recognize members of the Ji and Ko labs who have contributed significantly to this research, including Changyu Jiang, Kaiyuan Wang, Amanda Andriessen, Zilong Wang, Michael Lee, and Huiping Ding.” Donnelly is in his second year of postdoctoral studies at Duke, working under the supervision of Ji and Maixner.

“To me, winning this award affirms the translational potential of this project, the hard work and ingenuity of this amazing team of mentors and investigators, and underlines the impact of being in an outstanding research environment and a department invested in basic science research. I had high hopes in coming to Duke and it has exceeded all of my expectations. I look forward to seeing what we can continue to accomplish in the coming years,” adds Donnelly.

Stacey HiltonPostdoctoral Fellow Wins Highly-Competitive Awards