Researcher Profile: Torsten Gordh

Professor Torsten Gordh is the principal investigator in clinical pain research at Uppsala University’s Department of Surgical Sciences. He is also the chief physician and executive director at the Multidisciplinary Pain Clinic, Uppsala University Hospital. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

New camera tech reveals what pain looks like

Torsten Gordh is Sweden’s first professor of clinical pain research. In mid-February, he presented the latest findings in pain research at the AAAS international scientific conference in San Jose, USA.

The Multidisciplinary Pain Centre at Uppsala University Hospital receives patients with pain problems of various types. They include postoperative patients in severe pain, cancer patients and sufferers from chronic neck and back pain.
‘As a pain specialist, you see things you don’t understand every day. The issues I meet in my work have stimulated my research, giving me new ideas and impulses.’

One study that has created a big international stir is the imaging project in which Torsten Gordh and researchers at the Uppsala Berzelii Technology Centre for Neurodiagnostics have jointly shown that processes causing pain can, in fact, be depicted.
‘This hasn’t been feasible before. By injecting a substance into the body and then taking pictures using a PET camera, we can now reveal pain processes that can’t be seen in ordinary X-ray images,’ Gordh says.

PET (short for ‘positron emission tomography’) is a scanning technique that creates images of the body’s structure and function.
‘The new technology opens the way to a deeper understanding of pain, and supports pain patients’ own narratives. It also has a bearing on what type of treatment is applied,’ Gordh says.

This kind of imaging originated in research done 15 years ago. The substance deprenyl and the PET procedure were used in a study of neurological injuries. The images obtained showed an interesting side-effect: injecting the deprenyl illuminated the joints of patients with joint disorders.
‘We tried this method when we were looking at neck injuries in a later project, and found that the sites of the patients’ pain lit up. That was the first time we’d succeeded in depicting a pain-generating process.’

Since then, work to establish methods for creating images of pain processes has continued. There has been, for example, an acclaimed study on the initiative of Magnus Peterson, a pain doctor and researcher who studied pain connected with tennis elbow.
‘We now have four studies that point in the same direction. Imaging is still extremely new and expensive to perform, but I believe in this technique.’

The research is based on close collaboration between Uppsala University and the Berzelii Technology Centre for Neurodiagnostics, a strategic research centre funded by Sweden’s innovation agency VINNOVA and the Swedish Research Council.
‘Our areas of expertise fertilise each other. I don’t know how to start a PET camera myself, but I came up with the initiative and know a lot about pain patients.’

Another focus of Torsten Gordh’s research is on finding methods of classifying various painful conditions using biomarkers. Here, he works with Uppsala researchers in such fields as pharmacy and analytical chemistry.
‘When it comes to other types of illness, you can do a blood test and see where the problem is located. Up to now, that hasn’t been possible in the area of pain, but if we can find a biological diagnostic method it may clear the way for new opportunities. I’m convinced that we can get further in pain research.’

Josefin Svensson

Facts – Torsten Gordh

Name: Torsten Gordh
Age: 63
Family: wife and two children.
What makes me happy: walking in Uppsala’s Stadsskogen forest and along the shore of Lake Mälaren with my wife, working on my wooden boat and meeting friends. Working with young researchers and doctoral students also brings me joy and energy.
What winds me up: exaggerated bureaucratic zeal.
Last book read: Bortom den västra horisonten: Lunkentuss klassiska världsomsegling by Gunnar Dahlgren and Dag Ekholm.
Motto: Where there’s a will, there’s a way.