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Past Winner
2006 NSERC Doctoral Prize

Jeffrey Coull


McGill University

Jeffrey Coull
Jeffrey Coull

Life is a pain for tens of millions of people worldwide.

Dr. Jeffrey Coull, one of the leading young Canadian researchers being honoured with a 2006 NSERC Doctoral Prize, is advancing medical science by finding ways to modify neuropathic pain. That's a type of chronic pain arising from disruptions in the nervous system.

His Ph.D. research in McGill University's Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics focused on understanding how pain is processed.

"Normally, pain is a good thing – in the sense that it warns us of potential or actual problems," Dr. Coull says. "With neuropathic pain, however, inappropriate signals are transmitted from the body to the brain, making sufferers perceive that they are in constant pain despite the fact that no observable problem exists."

His laboratory work, supervised by Dr. Yves De Koninck, investigated what happens to specific nerve cells in the spinal cord to make them allow abnormal sensory information to be transmitted to brain’s pain centres.

"We found that nerve cells in the spinal cord, which normally form a filter of sorts, act as an amplifier of pain signals in the neuropathic state. Curiously, this shift is triggered by cells of the immune system," he explains.

"Typically, neuropathic pain stems from nerve damage associated with medical conditions such as diabetes, AIDS, or shingles. It is one of the least well-treated and understood disorders," says Dr. Coull, a native of Kingston, Ontario.

Specifically, his research examined the inhibitory control of neurons in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord that directly influence the transmission of pain-related information to the brain.

His findings may identify important targets for effective treatment of neuropathic pain – not by the kind of symptomatic relief provided by most marketed analgesics but through modification of the disease itself.

After leaving McGill, Dr. Coull launched Chlorion Pharma, a biotechnology/drug discovery company that develops novel therapeutics for the treatment of central nervous system disorders. It seeks to discover new medicines to treat common disorders, such as neuropathic pain and epilepsy.

"We believe that we have discovered several targets in the body important for the induction of neuropathic pain and other disorders of the central nervous system. At Chlorion, we are trying to work backwards to identify chemicals that will modify these targets and hence serve to alter the pathological course of these devastating disorders," he says.

Dr. Coull also works with SHI Consulting, a strategy consulting firm focused on the life sciences. The firm assists biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to acquire financing, locate and evaluate new technologies and products, optimize products they already have, and provide other strategy-related services.