Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine - News and Events
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Featured Doctor: Clifford Woolf

Clifford Woolf, MD

Dr. Clifford Woolf's work involves ingredients you might not expect to find in an operating room.

A dedicated researcher and the director of Mass General's Neural Plasticity Research Group, Woolf is currently investigating an innovative anesthesia delivery method using substances derived from fiery foods, including chili peppers and wasabi.

Dr. Woolf attended the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and earned a PhD and MB, BCh.

The university, Woolf noted, has produced many Nobel laureates, including Nelson Mandela, Sydney Brenner, who discovered mRNA, and Aaron Klug, who first identified the crystalline structure of viruses.

Woolf later moved to London, where he studied under Professor Patrick Wall, whom Woolf called “the greatest pain neurobiologist of his time.” He moved to Boston in 1997.

Since arriving at Mass General, Dr. Woolf has won the American Society of Anesthesiologists' Excellence in Research award for work in studying pain. In addition to his work as the director of the Neural Plasticity Research Group, he is currently the Richard J. Kitz Professor of Anesthesia Research at Harvard Medical School.

The Neural Plasticity Research Group, which Dr. Woolf founded in 1997, is a multidisciplinary group of 20 staff members.

"Our group, like many others at Mass General, is an amalgam of PhDs and MDs," he said.

The unit is devoted to "investigating the ways in which functional, chemical and structural plasticity of neurons contributes to the adaptive and maladaptive functions of the mammalian nervous system," according to its website.

Dr. Woolf's latest research project involves creating a new strategy for making pain-specific local anesthesia, using active ingredients derived from hot and spicy foods.

The problem with conventional anesthetics, Woolf said, is that they numb pain, but also produce unwanted effects. For example, epidurals, used in labor, paralyze the patient.

The proposed solution:  Target local anesthesia only to pain fibers within the cell using substances such as capsaicin, which is derived from chili peppers.

In preclinical research, Dr. Woolf and his team used capsaicin to open ion channels, also called TRPV1 channels, then delivered an anesthetic that is effective only when inside a cell. The process did not affect other areas within the cell.

The substance can be injected, applied to the surface of the skin, or given orally, Dr. Woolf said.

The project, conducted with Harvard Medical School researcher Dr. Bruce Bean, had a remarkably short gestation time from initial idea to publication, he said.

After the first discussion, "we set out to test it in a dish," Woolf said. "Within a week, we knew we were on to something really big and exciting. [Our research] shot ahead like a rocket."

In October 2007, the results were published in Nature.

Once clinical research is complete, the new process "could change the whole face of regional anesthesia," he said.

Woolf, a faculty member with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, is currently working on a new project to transform embryonic stem cells and stemcells derived from patients' fibroblasts into pain neurons.

This process could potentially enable physicians to screen patients to determine what is activating a patient's pain fibers, Dr. Woolf said, and which treatments they will respond to.

The project is being funded by GlaxoSmithKline, Woolf said, and will be conducted in conjunction with Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The multi-institutional project will allow the team to "tap into amazing intellectual resources," he said.

Woolf praised Mass General’s research capabilities.

"Science is a great adventure," he said, "and research is a big part of what makes Mass General special."

Related Links

Faculty profile: Dr. Clifford Woolf

Neural Plasticity Research Group

November 2008 Featured Doctor: Meredith Albrecht

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Department of Anesthesia,
Critical Care and Pain Medicine
Gray-Bigelow 444
55 Fruit Street
Boston, MA 02114

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Disabled Access: Yes