Chronic pain, by definition, is difficult to manage, but a new study by UCSF scientists shows how a cell therapy might one day be used not only to quell some common types of persistent and difficult-to-treat pain, but also to cure the conditions that give rise to them.
The researchers, working with mice, focused on treating chronic pain that arises from nerve injury — so-called neuropathic pain.
In their study, published in the May 24, 2012 issue of Neuron, the scientists transplanted immature embryonic nerve cells that arise in the brain during development and used them to make up for a loss of function of specific neurons in the spinal cord that normally dampen pain signals.
A small fraction of the transplanted cells survived and matured into functioning neurons. The cells integrated into the nerve circuitry of the spinal cord, forming synapses and signaling pathways with neighboring neurons.
As a result, pain hypersensitivity associated with nerve injury was almost completely eliminated, the researchers found, without evidence of movement disturbances that are common side effects of the currently favored drug treatment.
“Now we are working toward the possibility of potential treatments that might eliminate the source of neuropathic pain, and that may be much more effective than drugs that aim only to treat symptomatically the pain that results from chronic, painful conditions,” said the senior author of the study, Allan Basbaum, PhD, chair of the Department of Anatomy at UCSF.