New neuron model could make pain research quicker

Researchers have established a new sensory neuron model that could replace animal models

January 21, 2021
DDN Staff

ADELAIDE, Australia—Scientists at Flinders University have created a new sensory neuron model that is able to mass-reproduce two key sensory neuron types involved in pain sensation. This breakthrough could enable the easy generation of large numbers of sensory neurons, and potentially fast-track research on chronic pain. The study has been published in Molecular Pain.

For research applications, sensory neurons usually need to be isolated from animals. These neurons represent a wide variety of different cell types, which makes it difficult to collect and isolate large quantities of the pain-sensing neurons. But now, the researchers have found a way to reproduce millions of the cells — providing ample resources for the simultaneous testing of thousands of samples, or potential drug libraries.

“Our model replicates sensory neurons found in bundles called dorsal root ganglia next to the spinal cord,” said Dr. Dusan Matusica of the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders University, who led the new study. “These house the majority of the sensory fibers in the whole body that are capable of detecting heat, noxious chemicals and pressure, itch, and cold.”

Matusica pointed out that these neurons are involved in collating and transmitting all of the signals from the body to the spinal cord and brain.

“Scientists have long known that a subgroup of these neurons is critical in transmitting signals that lead to feelings of pain, and that changes in their signaling lead to the development of chronic pain. But together with challenges in isolating sufficient quantities of the neural cells, we have the additional challenge of cells dying in the isolation process,” Matusica noted. “Our model means that for the first time, we can easily generate pure populations of these two types of sensory cells in culture, providing the opportunity to get further insights into their function.”

Matusica believes that this new finding has significant implications for researchers around the world. With the ability to culture billions of the cells in as short a time as a week if needed, scientists will be able to substantially reduce their reliance on animals in the discovery phases of research projects. The research team has also genetically sequenced the two neural cells in their entirety, so researchers around the world will be able to quickly and easily ascertain whether they are suitable for their studies.

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