Researchers Create ‘Pain in a Dish’

Harvard scientists have achieved a breakthrough in pain research by converting mouse and human skin cells into pain sensing neurons that respond to acute and inflammatory pain.

The so-called “pain in a dish” may help advance the understanding of pain, identify which individuals are at risk of developing chronic pain, and lead to better drugs to treat pain. A report on the research is published online in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

“I think the ability to make human pain neurons for the pain field is going to be very important,” said lead researcher Clifford Woolf, MD, PhD, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH).

This image shows  sensory neurons detecting pain. (c) Liz Buttermore

This image shows sensory neurons detecting pain.
(c) Liz Buttermore

Woolf says the pain sensing neurons his team developed “beautifully model” neuropathies and the hypersensitivity to pain experienced by some of the patients who donated skin cells to the project.

“Many pain conditions are due to genetic mutations, and we can now model these,” Woolf said.

The breakthrough came after six years of research and repeated failures. Scientists initially focused on using embryonic stem cells to create pain sensing neurons, but found the task more difficult than they expected.

“We spent three years trying to recapitulate the developmental steps involved, and it turned out to be a total bust,” said Woolf, who is a Harvard Medical School professor of neurology and neurobiology, and director of the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at BCH. “For the first three years we had nothing to show for all our efforts.”

Woolf and his colleagues decided to take a different approach – and used new technology to develop pain sensing neurons directly from mouse and human skin cells.

The neuronal pain receptors they created respond both to acute pain triggered by physical injury, as well as chronic pain triggered by inflammation. The fact that the laboratory neurons respond to both types of pain shows that they are functioning as naturally developed neurons would.

The project was the original effort of a still ongoing collaboration between Harvard researchers and pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

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One Response

  1. John Quintner says:

    This is a remarkable scientific advance but to call them “pain neurons” is a fundamental logical error. The neurons in the dish respond to environmental conditions akin to tissue damage, but to call them “pain sensing” neurons betrays a lack of understanding that “pain” is a word we use for an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience created by our brain. How then can a neuron, or any other cell, respond to a lived experience?

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