Doctoral candidate in Food Science chosen for NIH research award

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A doctoral degree candidate in the College of Agricultural Sciences recently received a National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health to fund her innovative dissertation research.

As the first National Research Service Award recipient in the Department of Food Science, Alissa Nolden received a grant of more than $74,000 from NIH to support her project, titled "TRPV1 expression, oral burn and capsaicin desensitization in humans."

Nolden, a native of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, wrote in her project proposal that reducing pain and inflammation is an important goal for treating patients with chronic disease. Understanding the influence of relevant bioactive compounds found in the food supply on the regulation of pain receptors may prove to be an effective treatment.

Her research will test the hypothesis that repeated oral exposure to capsaicin -- the compound responsible for the "burn" in chili peppers -- might reduce the quantity of a specific receptor responsible for mediating pain. This receptor, called TRPV1, is expressed in the mouth, on the surface of the tongue, and on other mucosal tissues.

"If our hypothesis is correct, future studies could determine if capsaicin can be used as a viable treatment for individuals suffering from chronic oral pain or other inflammatory diseases," said Nolden. As part of her research, she will harvest human taste buds and look to see how receptor expression in those taste buds relates back to perceived burn from capsaicin.

"It is a true honor to receive an award of this caliber," Nolden said. "This proposal was sparked by a question I was asked during my master's degree defense back in March 2013. The question was aimed at gauging my understanding of study design, but it led to the development of my interest in receptor expression in human taste buds and tongue tissue."

Her proposal was sponsored by John Hayes, associate professor of food science and director of the Sensory Evaluation Center in the College of Agricultural Sciences. Co-sponsors include Sheila West, professor of biobehavioral health in the College of Health and Human Development, and Joshua Lambert, associate professor of food science.

Nolden, who is working towards a dual-title doctoral degree in Food Science and in Clinical and Translational Sciences, received a doctoral fellowship from the Penn State Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute in the summer of 2013. She credits the training she received in that program for encouraging her to explore the question of capsaicin desensitization as it relates to human health.

"This same receptor -- TRPV1 -- is associated with chronic inflammation, thus this research has the potential to influence human health. I hope that this study opens doors into new areas of research, combining sensory science, molecular biology and health," she said.

Nolden's proposal is an ambitious pivot away from where her dissertation project was thought to be headed originally, noted Hayes.

"Alissa has been the driving force behind this, and I am thrilled with the direction she is headed. Her project cuts across disciplines and is an example of the innovative translational science we strive for here. Clearly, I am not the only one impressed -- her anonymous reviewers at NIH were also highly enthusiastic about her proposal," Hayes said.

"I think that this area of research is going to be extremely important in identifying potential treatments or ways to improve the quality of life through altering/enhancing taste perception for individuals experiencing oral pain and/or discomfort associated with inflammation, dry mouth or side-effects of treatments such as chemotherapy."

Alissa Nolden is the first National Research Service Award recipient in the Department of Food Science. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated June 04, 2015