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Dr. Greg Dussor is an Associate Professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas, Dallas. He is also a neuroscientist with the startup company Ted’s Brain Science Products which develops non-opioid pain management products. He received his B.S. in biochemistry from the University of Alabama and his PhD in Pharmacology from the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio. Greg conducted postdoctoral research at the Vollum Institute of Oregon Health and Science University. He worked as a faculty member at the University of Arizona College of Medicine before coming to Dallas. Greg is the recipient of the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio Department of Pharmacology Award for Academic Excellence, the Future Leaders in Pain Research Award from the American Pain Society, and the Vernon and Virginia Furrow Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Education from the University of Arizona. Greg is here to chat with us about his experiences in science and life in general.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:37)
Greg likes wine and coffee. He became interested in wines while working as a postdoc in Portland, and he learned a lot about making wine through volunteering to harvest and press grapes at vineyards in the Willamette Valley. His fascination with coffee started relatively recently. Up until about seven years ago, Greg didn’t drink coffee at all. Then he discovered espresso. Since that fateful day, Greg spends time every morning grinding fresh coffee beans and experimenting with espresso.
The Scientific Side (4:50)
In the lab, Greg studies pain. In particular, he is interested in better understanding the mechanisms and potential treatments for headache disorders like migraine. This is a high impact research area because chronic pain conditions are experienced by vast numbers of people worldwide, and the World Health Organization lists migraine as the third most common disease on Earth.
A Dose of Motivation (7:02)
“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” – Albert Einstein
What Got You Hooked on Science? (13:02)
Though Greg didn’t know he wanted to be a scientist at the time, he was already conducting his own simple experiments at a young age. As a kid, Greg spent hours outside playing with different magnifying glasses to burn leaves using focused sunlight. He also developed a fascination with radio and shortwave radio. This meant arranging complex arrays of antenna wires in and around his childhood home to capture radio signals from all over the world. Influential high school teachers in biology and chemistry piqued his interest in these subjects, and set him on the path to his current area of research.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (26:24)
When starting his first lab as a faculty member at the University of Arizona, Greg’s research projects didn’t work at all. Fortunately, a colleague in migraine research suggested he try experiments on headache. This new research direction worked well, and Greg is still pursuing this research area today. Further back, when Greg was a graduate student, he experienced a similar period of about six months where none of his experiments worked. This was a really frustrating and challenging time, but persistence paid off, and he was eventually able to get his studies back on track.
A Shining Success! (9:16, 29:26)
As a basic research scientist, it is rare that Greg’s work directly impacts people with chronic pain conditions, so when it does, it is really exciting. Greg and a colleague identified a natural product that worked in their lab experiments to relieve pain. They have taken this discovery from the bench into the hands of consumers by developing a topical, non-opioid pain cream. This product is currently for sale, and getting feedback from people who have benefitted from it has been really rewarding. Also, in one of Greg’s first projects in migraines, they were investigating the neurons that signal from the cranial meninges (layers of protective tissues surrounding the brain) because they thought these neurons were involved in the mechanism of headaches. They published a paper describing how a certain type of ion channel was expressed in the nerve endings that innervate the meninges and how the ion channels seemed to contribute robustly to the activation of those neurons. In a following paper, another research group investigating this ion channel conducted a small trial of seven treatment-resistant migraine patients. When the ion channels were blocked, some of the patients experienced substantial improvement in their symptoms. Being able to contribute a piece of the puzzle that led to a successful small clinical trial that helped relieve pain for people was really validating and rewarding.
Book Recommendations (34:25)
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Most Treasured Travel ( 36:08)
As a second year graduate student, Greg was able to go to the International Association for the Study of Pain meeting in Vienna, Austria. That was the first time he ever traveled internationally, and it was a great experience. Vienna was beautiful, it was historically fascinating, had amazing palaces and gardens, and it was remarkable to see so many things that were hundreds of years old. At the conference, it was exciting to meet some of the scientists whose papers he had been reading and citing. He was finally able to see in person these people who he had been reading about.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (39:20)
Capsaicin is a chemical found in chili peppers that produces the sensation of heat or burning we experience when we eat them. As a graduate student, Greg did research using capsaicin to activate an ion channel selectively expressed on pain fibers. One of the visiting scientists in their lab had an uncanny ability to determine the concentration of capsaicin in a solution to an impressive level of precision just by tasting the solutions. To create these more dilute solutions for experiments, they used a highly concentrated stock solution. Greg and a colleague were struggling with experiments that weren’t working, and they began to suspect the stock solution had gone bad. They tested it by pipetting it onto their forearms. When no burning sensation ensued, they were even more worried about the integrity of the stock solution. A small drop of stock solution on Greg’s tongue, however, confirmed unmistakably that the solution was still highly potent. The pain was incredibly intense, and no amount of rinsing seemed to help. A few minutes later, their forearms started to burn as well. Apparently they hadn’t waited long enough for the capsaicin to diffuse through their skin with their initial forearm test.
Advice For Us All (46:24)
Find something that you enjoy doing, and do it. If you find that you don’t enjoy your work, you should find something else that really interests you. Being emotionally and intellectually invested in your work makes it enjoyable to do and to think about even when you’re not at work. Scientific research is challenging, and to be successful, you really have to enjoy it. Careers in research are really fun because there are moments where you are the first person on Earth to know the answer to something. This makes it worth all of the struggles.
Greg’s primary research interest is migraine and the goal of his work is to both better understand the pathophysiology of the disorder and to identify new therapeutic targets. His laboratory uses preclinical models of headache to investigate mechanisms that lead to activation/sensitization of afferent nociceptive signaling from the meninges. It was this work that led him to co-found Ted’s Brain Science Products with Dr. Theodore Price. The company, which started in 2017, offers a natural pain relief product. He has published over 50 peer-reviewed manuscripts on pain and headache and his work has been funded by the NIH, Migraine Research Foundation, National Headache Foundation, and several industrial sponsors. He is on the Editorial Boards for PAIN, PAIN Reports, and Headache, and he is a member of the Medical Advisory Board for the Migraine Research Foundation. Dr. Dussor received a Future Leaders in Pain Research Award from the American Pain Society. When he is not working, he usually spends his time roasting coffee, making espresso, chasing down Oregon Pinot Noirs, and feeding his obsession with Phish.