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Chen named Shelden Professor in Anesthesiology

Expert in itch discovered first itch-specific gene

by Jim DrydenSeptember 15, 2017

Mark Beaven

Zhou-Feng Chen, PhD, director of the Washington University Center for the Study of Itch, has been named the Russell D. and Mary B. Shelden Professor in Anesthesiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Chen’s research has provided valuable insight into how itch sensation is transmitted in the nervous system.

He was installed as the Shelden Professor by Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton and David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.

A pioneer in itch research, Chen’s work has demonstrated that itch signals are not pain signals but are carried by nerve cells along an altogether different circuit in the spinal cord.

“Zhou-Feng’s research provides fundamental insight into the genetic and molecular mechanisms that mediate itch,” said Alex S. Evers, MD, the Henry E. Mallinckrodt Professor and head of the Department of Anesthesiology. “Importantly, Zhou-Feng and his colleagues in the Center for the Study of Itch are making great progress in translating these discoveries into treatments to help people who suffer from itch. This professorship enhances and helps maintain our department’s preeminent position in research involving itch.” 

The professorship, which was created in 1998, previously was held by Joseph Henry Steinbach, PhD, who retired last year.

Chen, who also is a professor of psychiatry and of developmental biology, discovered the first itch-specific gene, called GRPR, and a neural circuit in the spinal cord dedicated to itch. That work opened a new field for the study of itch at the molecular level.

Recently, he discovered the neural basis for contagious itch, when a person or animal sees another scratching and begins feeling itchy, too.

“This professorship recognizes the work of everyone in my laboratory and throughout the Center for the Study of Itch,” Chen said. “It is the only center of its kind in the world, and we have been able to attract many talented investigators. This endowment will support our work to bring relief to the millions who suffer from itching.”

Chen received his undergraduate degree in virology from Wuhan University in China and his doctorate in genetics from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. After completing his doctoral degree, he was a research associate at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the California Institute of Technology. He joined the Washington University faculty in 2000.

The professorship was created in 1998 by Russell D. Shelden, MD, who served on the clinical faculty in the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Missouri-Columbia from 1958 to 1983, spending most of his career at the Research Medical Center in Kansas City, where he was president of the staff. He also was president of the Kansas City Society of Anesthesiologists, the Missouri Society of Anesthesiologists and was a member of the board of directors of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. He was an emeritus professor of anesthesiology at the time of his death in 2014.

At Washington University, Shelden and his wife, Mary Shelden, received the Robert Brookings Award in 2006, and both were Eliot Society Life Patrons. Dr. Shelden also was a member of the Washington University Regional Cabinet in Kansas City.

He served in the U.S. Army Reserve for 65 years and received a number of military honors, including three battle stars from World War II. He received his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Missouri, earning his medical degree in 1949.

Mary Shelden earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico. She was a supporter of multiple scholarships and was active in Kansas City as a member of the Junior League and the board of directors of the Women’s Division of the Kansas City Philharmonic. In addition to two endowed professorships at Washington University, the Sheldens also have endowed a pair of anesthesiology professorships at the University of Missouri.

Washington University School of Medicine‘s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked seventh in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Jim covers psychiatry and neuroscience, pain and opioid research, orthopedics, diabetes, obesity, nutrition and aging. He formerly worked at KWMU (now St. Louis Public Radio) as a reporter and anchor, and his stories from the Midwest also were broadcast on NPR. He hosts the Show Me the Science podcast, which highlights the outstanding research, education and clinical care underway at the School of Medicine. Jim has a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He joined Medical Public Affairs in 1992.