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$75 million in gifts creates neurosurgery pain research center and two endowed professorships

Patient Bob Salathe regains his zest for living following DREZ surgery
Posted March 11, 2016

NPRI Director Michael Caterina confers with NPRI Clinical Director Allan Belzberg.

Patient Bob Salathe shakes hands with his surgeon, Allan Belzberg. Patient Bob Salathe shakes hands with his surgeon, Allan Belzberg.

Imagine the worst pain you have ever experienced. Then multiply it by 1,000, with burning and crushing sensations. This is how neurosurgery patient Bob Salathe describes how he felt after an ATV accident caused him to lose the use of his right arm and to develop constant related neuropathic pain.

"The most severe example of injury to the nervous system is when the nerves that normally attach to our spinal cord actually get ripped out of the spinal cord," according to Salathe’s doctor, Allan Belzberg, MD, FRCSC; George J. Heuer Professor; Neurosurgery Pain Research Institute (NPRI) clinical director; and Peripheral Nerve Center director.

"You develop an abnormal cluster of nerves in the spinal cord that fires in a completely haphazard way, and that misfiring and miscommunication are totally misinterpreted by our brain as a horrific pain signal. And it’s the kind of pain that people truly will consider and even go ahead with committing suicide," Belzberg explains.

And while Bob's case is severe, more than 100 million Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain, according to Belzberg. "If you were to take diabetes, hypertension, all the cardiac issues, and cancer, and add them all together, it pales in comparison to the number of patients who are seen for chronic pain," he says.

In fact, the transformational gifts which established the Neurosurgery Pain Research Institute were provided by an anonymous couple, where "the husband suffered horribly from pain," explains Michael Caterina, MD, PhD, the Solomon H. Snyder Professor and NPRI director. He adds, "The institute is focusing on developing a comprehensive and better understanding of pain, from the single molecule all the way up to the whole person."

"The donors gave $75 million to form a true institute," says Henry Brem, MD, the Harvey Cushing Professor and director of the Department of Neurosurgery. "And part of that was to establish two endowed professorships, which are so vital to our institution, both for recruiting the absolute best people in the world and for retaining them." These two new named professorships are held by Caterina and Belzberg.

"In my own laboratory, we are interested in the very earliest events that happen when sentry neurons in our skin and other tissues trigger the sensation of pain," says Caterina, whose team discovered the TRPV1 protein and its connection to pain reception and whose professorship honors Sol Snyder, MD, a Lasker Award‑winning pioneer who discovered endorphins.

And after patient Salathe suffered for nearly a decade in pain, he recently decided to pursue what he considered to be his last option, dorsal root entry zone lesioning (DREZ) surgery.

"We make a series of very precise cuts, either with a laser or with a radio frequency probe, and we try to silence all of these abnormal neurons," explains Belzberg, whose professorship honors George J. Heuer, an early pioneer who made brain surgery safe. "It's very precise, but unfortunately is also dangerous," says Belzberg, who performed Salathe's DREZ procedure, which was a success.

"The surgery definitely gave me a new lease on life. It helped me to be the outgoing person that I always was, the spontaneous person that I always was, and just have fun and love life," Salathe says, adding that he has now taken up the family tradition of drag racing.

"And whenever we are fortunate enough to make a discovery that down the road ends up fundamentally changing either the way we understand a particular patient or better yet the way we treat that particular patient, it's an indescribable joy," says Caterina.

To learn more about establishing a professorship in any of our schools or divisions, please contact the appropriate development officer below:

Berman Institute: Becky Barnes
Bloomberg School of Public Health: Heath Elliott
Carey Business School: Greg Bowden
Center for Talented Youth: Margaret Walsh
Johns Hopkins Medicine: Steve Rum
Krieger School of Arts and Sciences: Debra Lannon
Nitze School of Advanced International Studies: Kimberle Morton
Peabody Institute: Jessica Lunken
School of Education: Michele Y. Ewing
School of Nursing: Tammy Berwanger
Sheridan Libraries and University Museums: Sylvia Eggleston Wehr
Whiting School of Engineering: Megan Howie