Faculty Spotlight: Yong Chen, PhD
The career path of Yong Chen, PhD, toward his current work in the Neurology Department began more than 10 years ago and involved scholarly work in three continents. In this week’s “Faculty Spotlight,” Chen talks to us about this journey, discusses his work to determine how ion channels contribute to trigeminal nerve pain, predicts how pain research will advance over the next decade, and shares his love of soccer and fishing in his time away from Duke.
What are your current responsibilities within the Neurology Department? What does a typical day for you look like?
I have been working in the Department for almost 10 years, originally as a Senior Research Associate in Dr. Wolfgang Liedtke’s lab and currently as an Assistant Professor. One of my major responsibilities is working on research projects. I currently have two major directions: one is to determine how ion channels, with a particular focus on Trp channels, contribute to trigeminal pain.
We recently found that Trpv4 in trigeminal ganglion sensory neurons is critical for the masticatory pain of temporomandibular joint disorders, and the discovery was published and cover-featured in the journal Pain. Based on this exciting finding, I recently submitted my first R01 application to the NIDCR, which is under council review. The other research area is how epidermal TRPV4 contribute to both acute and chronic-disease associated itch. We are trying to uncover how Trpv4 functions as a pruriceptor in keratinocytes under physiological and pathological itch conditions.
Aside from the daily bench work, I have been under UNC-Duke bi-institutional K12 training for almost three years. The purpose of this NIH-supported award is to develop successful and independent basic, clinical and translational research scholars who can lead multi-disciplinary research teams to apply novel approaches to temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD) and orofacial pain (OFP) research. I have rotations through Bioinformatics, Etiology and Modeling, Phenotyping, Molecular Profiling Core Facilities and the OFP clinics at UNC. I also have regular journal club and research progress presentations at the UNC Dental School, which is open to residents, students, and faculty. I would say I am both Blue Devils and Tar Heels fan.
Last but not least, I have also helped Dr. Liedtke supervise technicians, international visiting students, and scholars in his lab for years.
How and when did you first get interested in neurology research? How did you come to focus on research involving head and face pain in particular?
It was my PhD experience that peaked my interest in neuroscience research. I received my PhD degree from the School of Life Science of Lanzhou University, China, where I took my first steps towards a career in pain neurobiology a decade ago. My work at Lanzhou University was designed to develop novel opioid analogues with enhanced analgesic potency and longer-lasting effects and fewer untoward effects. After completion of my doctorate., I took my first post-doctoral position in the Department of Neurology at University of Wurzburg, Germany.
Working with Dr. Claudia Sommer, I focused on opioid tolerance, one of the common and often-time therapy-limiting side effects of chronic opioid administration. I considered this a highly attractive topic that dove-tailed with my PhD thesis work, but also provided opportunity for me to explore new mechanisms inherent in neural signaling, neural circuits and in plasticity of synaptic communication.
Chronic pain affects more people than the total affected by heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined. Prevalence of trigeminal pain disorders in the U.S. in estimated at 20-30x106. In the end of 2018, I moved to Duke University to join the group of scientist-clinician Dr. Wolfgang Liedtke, known for his discovery of TRPV4 ion channel and its role in pain, his translational neuroscience research and his head-face pain clinics that draw patients from nation-wide. My research has focused on the development and implementation of novel trigeminal pain models, with specific attention to the role of TRP ion channels. My professional growth opportunities were greatly expanded via NIH-supported training which is guiding me toward becoming an independent investigator.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
One favorite part of my job is working with variety of people of different backgrounds and cultures, each with their own skills, experiences, and methods of working. I should emphasize that my colleagues are among the nicest and most helpful people that I have worked with.
How has our knowledge of how the body senses and processes pain changed since you first started work in this arena? What changes do you see coming in this area over the next decade?
There is no doubt that pain research has undergone a remarkable progress over the last decade, from the discovery of novel pain molecules to pain circuits. There are some promising emerging targets for the treatment of acute and chronic pain, e.g. TRP channels. However, the key question is whether preclinical efficacy data on these targets will translate to humans. This requires basic scientists and clinicians working together. To do so we need more focused models that are true surrogates of chronic human pain conditions, and a more scientific focus to identify where and how patient’s pain is being generated. Nevertheless, I have been impressed by the development of novel and more clinical-relevant pain models that can measure spontaneous pain automatically and model human disease conditions as closely as possible.
In the next decade, I will be very excited to witness how opotogenetic and chemogenetic approaches/tools [the use of light and macromolecules to manipulate living cells, respectively--editor] recently employed in pain research, help us to better understand pain mechanisms. I am also particularly interested in seeing the research progress of sex differences in pain and brain circuits in pain.
What other passions or hobbies do you have outside of Duke?
Soccer is definitely my #1 hobby in life, watching and playing. I have regular soccer practice twice a week. I also like fishing a lot.
Chen enjoys fishing in Little River Lake, Durham NC.