Geneticist Jeffrey Mogil has found genes connected to pain in unexpected places, including areas of DNA also responsible for red hair. But he’s given up most of his genetics research; the technology that’s made it so much easier to map the genome has taken away the fun, he says.
More recently, the McGill University professor and native Canadian has turned his attention to other aspects of pain — looking for better measures, tracking connections between pain and the immune system, and revealing gender differences in pain sensitivity. STAT talked with Mogil about this research, as well as his love of disco.
You recently published a paper showing that males and females process pain differently. How does that work?
Female mice appear to use a completely different immune cell to process pain than males do. Male mice use microglia; it looks like female mice are using T cells, instead. We need to redo all the biology done on the male system basically from scratch on the female system.
Does this difference explain gender differences in human disease?
The problem with men is that their immune systems don’t work well enough, so they’re much more susceptible to infections, sepsis, and stuff. The problem with women is their immune systems work too well. They don’t get infections, but they do get autoimmune disease.
So, you’ve found the biological basis of the man-cold?
My wife accused me of having a man-cold this morning!
Do you think more research should include female animals?
I think it’s a scandal — a major ethical problem — that we don’t do all our experiments in male and female rodents. Sure, females have a source of variability that males don’t have [in their menstrual cycles], but male animals have a source of variability that females don’t have: they have dominance, fighting. There’s no reason at all that researchers shouldn’t be using half males and half females, but of course they don’t for reasons of inertia.
Were you always a contrarian?
I definitely get turned on by different things than a lot of my colleagues. Most scientists are interested in mechanism. I could care less. I’m interested in trying to pull out new things in the world that no one ever took seriously before.
You’re also a keyboardist, though you recently quit your band, Blue Monkey Project, because it was moving away from disco and funk. What are some of your musical strengths?
I do a pretty good James Brown impersonation, as it turns out.
Will you still write songs? Maybe about the immune system?
That would be dumb. Terrible. I’ll write a proper pop song.
You’ve been critical of the progress, or lack of progress, in genetics. But even though it hasn’t led us to the promised cures, hasn’t it helped us understand diseases better?
Yoda said it the best: “There is no try.” If you can’t do anything about it, you don’t understand it.