Talking with A man who loves to study pain


Name: Allan Basbaum
Age: 66
City: San Francisco and San Rafael
Position: Professor and chair, UCSF Department of Anatomy


J.: You grew up in Montreal in a religious, kosher home and came to the Bay Area in 1974 while doing postdoctoral work. What’s your current religious affiliation?

Allan Basbaum: That’s a difficult question. If someone asked me, I’d say,  I’m Jewish. If they ask me what that means, I’d say I was brought up Jewish and that’s what I am; we have a seder and eat latkes on Hanukkah. I enjoy the familial and cultural aspects of the tradition, but I’m not religious and I don’t believe in God, for example.

Allan Basbaum

J.: After your undergraduate studies at McGill, you went on to get a Ph.D. from University of Pennsylvania. How did you get into the field of pain research?

AB: Serendipitously, really. I was an undergrad in Montreal and looking for a summer job during the 1967 world’s fair. I applied [for a job] like everyone else. … I didn’t get called fast enough and there was a job offer with Ronald Melzack in McGill’s psychology department. He was one of the godfathers of new pain research and I got a summer job studying pain. I stayed in it for the rest of my life.

J.: Did you have any idea what you’d be doing when you got into the field of pain?

AB: I always assumed I would go to medical school but became fascinated with research and decided that was what I wanted to do instead. After my Ph.D., I went to London to work with the other half of the Melzack and Wall team. [Melzack and Patrick Wall published a 1965 groundbreaking paper introducing the gate control theory of pain.] I’ve basically been studying pain mechanisms and pain control mechanisms and aspects of how narcotics work.

What’s happening right now in your lab?

AB: The most exciting thing is that we’ve turned our attention to neuropathic pain, which comes about from injury to the nervous system rather than from tissue. For example, with arthritis you have inflammation and can get chronic pain. There are a variety of pain conditions that come from damage to nerves. … Another type is diabetic neuropathy, where patients with diabetes end up with nerve damage in their arms and legs and have terrible pain. It’s a very difficult pain to treat and doesn’t respond to opiates and traditional aspirin-like drugs. We are interested in the mechanisms that produce this rather unique type of pain. We’ve been using cell transplants, and are moving on to human embryonic stem cells.

J.: Have you personally experienced chronic pain, or some that is similar to what you study in your patients?

AB: I have had all kinds of pain, the worst of which was my gallbladder — I thought I had a knife stuck in my chest. I was eventually given morphine and the pain went away. Also, I actually walked off [the edge of] a stage many years ago (I move around a lot, across the stage, which was why I fell) and subsequently shattered my elbow. I had a couple of surgeries on it and I was left with not only a crooked arm, but also a mild neuropathic pain condition where I have tingling and burning. … I would never take drugs for it, but it does give me an idea of what’s going on.

J.: Have you been to Israel?

AB: Yes, I’ve been several times, both for work and for pleasure. The first time I was there, I was on sabbatical in Paris and went there with my wife and two kids to give a lecture. It was an interesting time, because Passover coincided with Easter. Jerusalem was hopping. We were invited for a seder at a friend’s mother’s who was kind of a matriarch in Jerusalem. It was very special and we were the guests of honor. My son was 5 years old and he really didn’t have any Jewish upbringing at the time (he later had a bar mitzvah). We were sitting at the table and our host takes the haggadah and shows us a photo. She turns to Jesse and says, “Do you know who that is?” And he responds, “Baby Jesus?” It was terrible — it was the worst thing you could have said to this woman and she had to sit there across from us the rest of the seder.

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