The Neuroinflammation and Gender group is trying to gain insight into the connection between sex and neural function as part of the Drexel Areas of Research Excellence initiative.
The DARE program is an initiative with a focus on interdisciplinary research. In Jan. 2016, faculty from both the Drexel University College of Medicine and University City Campus applied for funding of a large, interdisciplinary project. Five teams were selected for the program and given some preliminary funding for a pilot study, part time research assistants and equipment.
One of the teams chosen as part of the initiative was the Neuroinflammation and Gender team. This team was founded by Kara Spiller, assistant professor in the school of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems; John Bethea, department head and professor in the biology department; and Karen Moxon, former research professor in the school of biomedical engineering.
Upon creation of the team, Spiller and Bethea continued reaching out to other Drexel professors who were interested in or doing similar research. These professors were invited to weekly meetings where they each would give small presentations of their research and its relation to neuroinflammation and gender.
Upon application for the DARE initiative, 11 researchers were part of the team .
“The goal has always been to expand it, because you never know what’s going to work out and what’s not, and now we’re up to 30 people,” Spiller said.
The group has members working on aspects of neuroinflammation ranging from music therapy at treatment to static magnetic therapies, biological therapy and exercise therapy.
“The purpose of the Neuroinflammation and Gender research program is to understand the reasons why there is a gender basis in neuroinflammatory diseases and then to try and develop better therapies to try to treat these diseases,” Spiller explained.
“Men and women have very different biological makeups and researchers doing experiments only on male animals have different results than in female animals,” she continued.
Neuroinflammation is related to many autoimmune diseases, neurodegenerative diseases as well as chronic pain.
“Pain is the number one health care problem in the world. By pain I mean chronic pain and about 25 percent of the people in the world today have chronic pain and they’re not responding to physical therapies,” Bethea said during a phone interview.
Similar to therapies, sex also plays an important role in regards to chronic pain. Bethea’s individual project as part of the team involves immunomodulating.
Dr. Spiller’s project involves inflammation and diabetic wounds by taking human samples from the clinic and analyzing them for inflammatory characteristics.
“We’re trying to figure out how inflammation determines whether or not diabetic wounds will heal. Diabetic wounds are major problems that affect people with diabetes and diabetes is a major problem that afflicts the world and it’s a growing epidemic. A lot of these wounds are neuropathic,” Spiller explained.
Another member of the Neuroinflammation and Gender group is Girija Kaimal, assistant professor at the College of Nursing and Health Professions. Kaimal and Joke Bradt, an associate professor at the College of Nursing and Health Professions, are studying the effects of creative arts therapy on inflammation.
“I am looking at how inflammation changes as a result of an art therapist facilitated open studio session. We are looking how working with an art therapist differs from doing art activities like coloring by oneself,” Kaimal wrote over email. “I look at changes in salivary levels of neuroinflammatory indicators. We have been working together to determine ways to capture changes in saliva. This is a relatively new area of research,” she continued.
While the name of the team is Neuroinflammation and Gender, the team is currently looking at neuroinflammation and biological sex. Recently, it has been shown that mental health is greatly related to neuroimmunological health.
In other words, your mind and perception are intertwined with neural functions. So, a person’s biology can vary greatly depending on how they identify. However, not much is known about gender effect on neuroinflammation, so currently the team is not studying gender, but in the future, they might.
An international symposium is planned to be held next year, where people will be able to see the progression of the different research projects that are part of the Neuroinflammation and Gender team. Aside from a poster showcase there will also be seminars and professionals in the field outside of Drexel.
Furthermore, collaboration resulting from the DARE program has lead to a pre-proposal to the Department of Defense for the development of non-opioid therapies for chronic pain.
For Bethea, however, one of the best benefits of the program is the opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration. Spiller agrees.
“It’s been allowing us to think differently of things we’re interested in. Which is really important for science. That’s how innovation happens,” she continued.