Rutgers‒Camden Professor Aims to Help Find Alternatives to Opioids for Pain Relief

By Jeanne Leong

Nathan Fried is on a mission.

The Rutgers University–Camden researcher aims to reduce chronic pain patients’ reliance on opioids by finding a non-addictive treatment. To unlock those secrets, the neuroscientist studies the brain’s role in determining how humans perceive different types of pain.

Opioids have been used for centuries to treat some forms of pain effectively, but Fried explains that there are types of pain that could be relieved using other methods as well, such as acupuncture, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulators, or even mitochondrial supplements, which work with a patient’s mitochondria to increase their ability to use oxygen to produce energy.

In his innovative research, Fried had been studying how these different techniques mechanistically work to relieve pain, but has now turned his sights onto how sleep patterns affect pain.

“The general idea here is for a number of chronic pain patients, especially fibromyalgia, if you treat the underlying sleep condition you can actually improve their chronic pain condition,” says Fried, a Rutgers University‒Camden assistant professor of biology.

Fried’s interest in the opioid epidemic stems from the devastating effect it has had on his hometown of Riverside. Some acquaintances and friends have struggled with drug use disorders, with a few of his former classmates dying from opioid overdoses.

Like many people who are addicted to opioids, Fried recalls, his friends developed an addiction after their doctors prescribed opioids, such as Percocet, to treat pain from an injury.

He believes his research might open up a new therapeutic target for pharmaceutical companies to find a non-addictive alternative to opioids for chronic pain patients.

Through his work in the lab, Fried hopes to engage and inspire a new generation of scientists from Rutgers‒Camden by giving low-income and first-generation undergraduate students an opportunity to do meaningful lab work as part of their courses.

Calling the projects “bite-sized authentic research experiences within the curriculum,” Fried plans to create an environment for students to develop skills that will help lead them to a career in a science field.

“Whether they go to medical school, to pursue a Ph.D., if they go into the work force, whatever they end up doing, we want to make sure they are very competitive,” says Fried.

He adds that many Rutgers‒Camden students who would like to conduct research are not able work as an unpaid intern in a lab because they need to work part-time jobs to pay for living expenses. Having an opportunity to conduct research as part of their classwork, he says, would open doors for them to obtain research experience and possibly have their findings published in scientific journals.

Fried aims to make a career in science accessible to everyone, especially students whose upbringing is similar to his.

The youngest of three brothers growing up in Riverside, Fried recalls that his family survived in part on public assistance. His father didn’t finish high school, but earned his GED in his 40s. When Fried was in high school, his mother completed an associate’s degree at Burlington County College. She went on to Holy Family College in Philadelphia and earned a bachelor’s degree in education, and is now a pre-kindergarten special education teacher in Camden. Both of his brothers started their post-high school education in their 30s. His brother Jim is a physical therapist and his brother Jeremy is a diesel mechanic.

Fried never dreamed of becoming a scientist or a professor. “I had no idea how to do it and had no one to show me the path,” says Fried, “so it was a lot of self-perception that it was just not a realistic path for me.”

An excellent student with an interest in science, Fried didn’t decide until his senior year in high school that he would attend college. Most of his friends were either going into the military or planning to find a job after graduating from high school, so he didn’t feel any pressure to make a decision.

“I had no plan, “says Fried. “I thought I would just figure things out once I graduated. I suppose I was just planning to get a warehouse job or something local until life started pointing me in one direction or another.”

That all changed in his senior year, however, when a college recruiter who came to Riverside High School commented on the Spider-Man costume he was wearing for Halloween. She said he looked “creative” and, although he didn’t have a vast interest in art, she asked if he was going to apply to the art school she was representing. The recruiter’s comment was the motivation he needed to take the first step toward college.

At Drexel University, Fried majored in biology, minored in math, and worked in a lab conducting Alzheimer’s disease research, and that’s where he discovered his calling. “I was completely fascinated by memory,” says Fried. “I saw it as the essence of who we are as humans.”

He earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Thomas Jefferson University in 2015, where he studied memory and sensory systems, including pain. “I started having these ideas that if memory makes us who we are, then our sensory systems are the conduit to becoming who we are because it lets us experience the outside world and form those memories,” he says. “I learned about pain and migraine, which allowed me to approach sensory systems from a biomedical research stance.”

His research into pain continued as a postdoctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Neuroscience, where he spent three years conducting research to learn more about chronic pain and the most advanced neuroscience tools available to study it.

His high energy and engaging manner have endeared him to students in his first year of teaching at Rutgers‒Camden.

In Fried’s first semester on campus, he has quickly connected with some undergraduate and graduate students discussing their research ideas and their post-Rutgers goals, and offering advice and guidance. His research space in the basement of the Science Building is expected to be up and running in the summer of 2019.

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