March 22, 2018

Aspiring researcher unravels the mechanisms underlying chronic pain

Markin USRP studentship gives Alexandra Holmes the opportunity to expand her contributions to research
Alexandra Holmes received a Markin USRP studentship in Health and Wellness to study the central mechanisms underlying chronic joint pain.
Holmes received a Markin USRP studentship to study the central mechanisms underlying chronic joint p Stephanie Vahaaho, University of Calgary

Numerous conditions can lead to chronic pain, including disease, illness and injury. One of the most common causes of chronic pain is arthritis, a condition where inflammation occurs within a joint causing symptoms such as swelling, discomfort and impaired movement. Symptoms of arthritis may come and go and may vary from mild to moderate to debilitating.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis and its prevalence is increasing due to our aging population and a surge in related risk factors such as obesity, smoking and lack of exercise.

OA occurs when cartilage, the protective cushioning surface at the end of bones, wears away resulting in bone rubbing against bone. Over time, joints can lose strength, increasing instability and leading to the symptoms of chronic pain. Chronic pain is the key component and most common disability experienced by individuals suffering from OA and unfortunately it is also largely unresponsive to current pain relief medications. While the underlying mechanisms of chronic joint pain still remain a mystery, a few research studies have noted that symptoms of chronic joint pain reported by individuals living with OA, closely resemble symptoms reported by individuals with nervous system injuries. Researchers today are investigating whether the neurons in the central nervous system play a role in chronic joint pain.

Seeking a better understanding of chronic pain induced OA

Third-year Faculty of Science student Alexandra Holmes is a recipient of a fall 2017/winter 2018 Markin Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP) in Health and Wellness studentship. Under the mentorship of Jeff Biernaskie, PhD, and assistant professor in stem cell biology in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Jo Anne Stratton, PhD, in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Holmes is using a multifaceted approach to uncover the underlying, centrally derived mechanisms that contribute to chronic joint pain induced by OA. Her research aims to identify alternative pain mechanisms that could be targeted for future pain relief therapies.

Alexandra Holmes in the Biernaskie Lab immunostaining tissue slides for microscopic imaging.

Alexandra Holmes in the Biernaskie Lab immunostaining tissue slides for microscopic imaging.

tephanie Vahaaho, University of Calgary

Holmes ultimately wants to leave her mark in the area of chronic pain and advance her research skills. “Through my Markin USRP experience, I hope to improve my technical skills, including confocal imaging and critical data analysis. I hope that my current project will provide insights into the chronic pain field, by specifically determining the central nervous system areas that are activated in response to osteoarthritis-induced chronic pain,” says Holmes. “The Markin USRP will greatly benefit my long-term career goal of becoming a respected clinical neuroscientist specializing in understanding and treating pain sufferers.”

Importance of undergraduate research

The benefits of participating in undergraduate research at the University of Calgary reach beyond the world of academia. Through the Markin USRP, students learn to understand the research process; learn how researchers decipher and strive to solve problems; develop lab skills and techniques; gain the ability to analyze data; and integrate theory with effective practice.

“Markin USRP provides the unique opportunity to get engaged in research throughout the school year. The guidance and support from the Markin USRP team is incredibly valuable as encouragement to continue research in the future.”

You are invited to the Markin USRP Student Research Mini-Symposium

Holmes will conclude her Markin USRP studentship by sharing her research at the upcoming Markin USRP Student Research Mini-Symposium on April 6, 2018. Join us at the Rozsa Centre and learn more about the current health and wellness research being conducted by our undergrads here at the University of Calgary. It is truly amazing what these undergraduate students have accomplished within five months. Visit for more information on the upcoming Markin USRP Student Research Mini-Symposium.