Jeffrey Mogil

Pioneers in pain

Approximately one in five Canadian adults lives with pain each day. And over 50% of those with chronic pain also suffer from depression, resulting in suicide rates that are almost double those in the rest of the population.

The Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain at McGill aims to give hope to these patients by uncovering the root causes of pain, and discovering new applications that will improve prevention and treatment. Based in the Faculty of Dentistry and also comprising researchers from the Faculties of Medicine and Science, the Centre is one of the largest, best known and most productive organizations of its kind in the world.

The international heft and disciplinary breadth of the Centre would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, when the late Alan Edwards first met McGill Professor Ronald Melzack, BSc’50, MSc’51, PhD’54. In those days, pain was treated as a secondary medical condition, and very little effort was made to understand or treat it apart from its underlying causes. Edwards, whose late wife Louise suffered from chronic pain conditions, including migraine headaches, was determined to harness the potential of McGill’s nascent pain community, in which Dr. Melzack was a leader and pioneer.

This was a beginning of an extraordinary philanthropic partnership, that came to fruition when, in 2003, decades after Edwards’ first encounter with Dr. Melzack, the McGill Pain Centre was created. Edwards’ contributions to the Centre – which grew to include a $9-million endowment through his charity, the Louise and Alan Edwards Foundation – created a focal point that allowed what had been a disparate community of researchers with an interest in chronic pain to come together in a single organization that is now an international leader in the field. Edwards himself worked diligently behind the scenes until his death, generously supporting the Centre’s highest priorities as well as raising funds from the greater community.

“The Centre, which unites researchers from multiple departments, three different faculties and all of our teaching hospitals, provides an essential forum so that we can collaborate effectively,” says Dr. Fernando Cervero, the Centre’s Director. Funds from the Edwards Foundation also support collaborative research projects, the recruitment of new faculty and provide fellowships for promising young researchers.

One such researcher, Anne-Julie Chabot-Doré, BSc’04, BSc’07, had been interested in the study of pain since she was a teen. As a recipient of the Louise and Alan Edwards Foundation Studentship in Pain Research, Chabot-Doré acknowledges that the financial support will allow her to focus on her PhD research, but says it also means much more.

“The Foundation’s evaluation committee saw the great potential of my research project, but they also recognized the value of my involvement in the scientific community and public outreach projects,” she says.

As she embarks on a career in the sciences, that encouragement – and immersion in the McGill pain community – will be invaluable. And for the thousands of Canadians suffering from chronic pain, the efforts of Chabot-Doré and her colleagues provide a beacon of hope that, someday, their suffering might be a thing of the past. Surely, that would make Alan Edwards proud.