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Purmessur earns NSF CAREER award for back pain research


Devina Purmessur, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has received a five-year, $568,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation for her research on novel methods of mechanically regulated cellular communication in the spinal column.

Devina Purmessur

The CAREER award is the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) most prestigious award in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of both.

Purmessur’s research will build a foundation of new experimental knowledge on the active role of the cartilage endplate within the intervertebral disc joint and biomechanical processes regulating cellular communication between tissues.

Longer-term, it could help identify better treatment for chronic joint diseases such as back pain. In addition to its effects on quality of life, chronic back pain in people exerts a significant socioeconomic burden. As many of its sufferers try to manage the pain with prescription drugs, it also has contributed to the growing opioid crisis, which is now a national research priority.   

Specifically, Purmessur’s work will focus on the intervertebral disc joint—a cushion-like structure between vertebrae—which provides mobility to the spinal column. This cushion also relies on diffusion of nutrients through the cartilage endplate.

“Diseases of the intervertebral disc joint in the spinal column are complex and it is difficult to isolate the specific pathology to one cell type or tissue,” she explained.

Treatments targeting the intervertebral disc joint of the spine have commonly focused on a single tissue and do not target neighboring tissue structures such as the cartilage endplate, although lesions there are directly associated with joint disease.

“Recent studies provide evidence that the cartilage endplate is communicating with its surroundings,” Purmessur said. “This suggests an active role for cartilage endplate in the tissue communication of the intervertebral disc joint. Further, we propose exploring a new method of cellular communication within the joint centered on cell-derived or extracellular vesicles.”

Her project will also address a critical need to educate ethnically diverse and socio-economically disadvantaged women students in STEM. At the university or high school level, it will facilitate an understanding of musculoskeletal tissues via tissue engineering applications and be incorporated into Ohio State’s NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program, Summer Research Opportunities Program or Columbus-area schools’ district-level programming.

More broadly in human health, a program called Skeleton School will teach pre-school students how exercise and movement influences skeletal tissues and joints. Purmessur will work with The Ohio State University Child Care Program to pilot and establish this new offering, with the goal of expansion to Columbus-area pre-school and kindergarten programs.

Purmessur also leads two National Institutes of Health-supported projects to investigate potential treatments for intervertebral disc degeneration in people or pets and received NIH R61 and R21 awards to investigate novel minimally invasive and non-addictive therapies for low back pain.

She joined Ohio State as an assistant professor in 2015 and is the director of the Spinal Therapeutics Lab. Previously, Purmessur was an instructor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a postdoctoral fellow at Mount Sinai Medical Center in the Iatridis Spine Bioengineering Laboratory. She holds a PhD in molecular pathology from the University of Manchester, a master’s in immunology from the University of Nottingham and a bachelor’s in medical biochemistry from the University of Sheffield.

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, 

Categories: FacultyResearch