The Center was created with a $20 million pledge over 10 years from the Will Erwin Headache Research Foundation. Pam and Jimmy Erwin know first-hand just how debilitating and life-changing cluster headaches and migraines can be. They started the foundation in memory of their son, Will, who suffered from cluster headaches and, with no cure in sight and no escape from the constant pain, took his own life in 2010 at the age of 24.
“We want to turn our tragedy into something that can help other patients and families who suffer from this terrible disease,” said Jimmy Erwin. “Our dream is to help the millions of people who deal with this pain every day of their lives, and the Center is just the beginning of seeing that dream come true.”
Mark Burish, M.D., Ph.D., will lead the Center with the goal of setting up national collaborations, creating a network that can fight together, and eventually finding a cure. He is uniquely qualified for this; Dr. Burish is a physician, scientist and a neurologist who is also fellowship trained in interventional pain management.
“These headaches are possibly the worst pain that human’s experience, and many describe their headaches as being more painful than childbirth,” said Dr. Burish. “This is a devastating disease that hinders your ability to function as you’d like to and disrupts your quality of life.”
Cluster headaches are known to occur in cyclical patterns or “clusters,” which gives the condition its name. Although believed to be rare, they are one of the most painful types of headache and, for that reason, are also sometimes referred to as “suicide headaches.” Groups of frequent attacks, known as cluster periods, may last anywhere from weeks to months. Treatment options for cluster headaches are extremely slim due to a lack of research and funding, and most patients suffer in extreme amounts of pain with very limited options.
Focused primarily on finding better treatments and potentially a cure for the disease, the Center will be staffed with a core group including a neurologist, nurse, biostatistician, data analyst and lab members. They will also work on developing several collaborations with scientists who can help study samples obtained in the lab.
“The Will Erwin Headache Research Center will focus on patients with intractable headaches and more rare conditions like cluster headaches. Research on such patients has lagged because no one has identified a large cohort of such patients,” said Dong Kim, M.D., Director of MNI and Professor and Chair at McGovern Medical School’s Vivian L. Smith Department of Neurosurgery. “By working collaboratively with other researchers across the country to identify and enroll such patients, we can focus on understanding why these headaches occur and design interventions to help. We hope to impact the lives of these patients by easing their pain once and for all.”
The staff at the Will Erwin Headache Research Center will focus on understanding how headaches work and then use that information to design clinical trials along the way. The Center represents UTHealth’s and MNI’s joint commitment of energy, talent and research dollars to help people with debilitating headaches recover and participate more fully in life.