Project Spotlight: Personalized Pain Treatment

Ajay D. Wasan, MD, MSc, a leading Pain Medicine clinician and researcher, leads the Center for Commercial Applications of Healthcare Data’s Personalized Pain Treatment (PPT)TM project along with Research Program Manager Andrea Gillman, PhD. Chronic pain impacts more than one third of the US population, generating total annual health care costs exceeding $600 billion. A key contributor to the growing financial burden of chronic pain is the fact that patient response to different pain treatments varies dramatically between individuals. PPTTM is a shared decision-making tool that utilizes machine learning to predict an individual patient’s response to various pain treatments. Dr. Wasan and Dr. Gillman dove into their research and working relationship in their Project Spotlight interview.

Please tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Dr. Wasan: I am the Vice Chair for Pain Medicine in the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. I am a practicing clinician in the field of pain medicine and also do research associated with chronic pain. My research includes clinical research studies of low back pain and psychological factors, functional MRI studies of pain physiology in the brain, quantitative sensory testing, patient-reported outcomes, and predictive analytics.

Dr. Gillman: I am a Research Program Manager in the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. I’ve done research in several different fields and have worked in both academic and corporate research labs studying circadian rhythms, animal behavior, toxicology, drug addiction, and now chronic pain.


What led you to the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance?

Dr. Wasan: We were referred to the PDHA by the University of Pittsburgh’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI). We received one of CTSI’s “Pain Challenge” grants in 2018, and they encouraged us to apply for PHDA funding for our project. We’re excited to work with PHDA to turn our project into a working software program that can help people suffering from chronic pain.


Can you walk us through your project?

Dr. Gillman: Chronic pain is a catch-all term for dozens of pain conditions, including arthritis, low back pain, fibromyalgia, and neuropathy. Patients receiving treatment for chronic pain in a pain management program like UPMC Pain Medicine typically undergo a “multimodal” treatment plan, which can include any combination of medications, surgical procedures, physical therapy, psychological treatment, and integrative medicine such as yoga or acupuncture. Every patient’s pain is different, and it is not always clear which treatments will work for them. Our PPTTM software will use predictive analytics to identify which treatments are most likely to benefit each individual patient. Our goal for this project is to deliver information that can ultimately be used in the process of shared decision-making between doctor and patient.


How do you and your project partners’ strengths complement each other?

Dr. Wasan: We are a very complementary research team. While I bring the clinical expertise and oversee the “big picture,” I couldn’t get much done without Andrea. Andrea brings the science experience and handles the very important day-to-day operations of the project.


How is the PHDA uniquely positioned to assist your team and grow your project to commercialization?

Dr. Gillman: Our expertise is in science and clinical medicine. We are great at coming up with ideas and conducting scientific studies, but we have no idea how to commercialize those ideas. The Alliance has all of the resources and expertise to help us, and we are very grateful for it!


What are your project’s next steps?

Dr. Wasan: Right now, we are refining our predictive models and working on the database and software. We are projecting that we will have a working prototype early next year, and we plan to do some user testing and feasibility studies to make sure the PPTTM report works well for both patients and doctors. We’re in a really exciting place right now and are looking forward to seeing our project grow!