Towards an effective treatment for chronic pain

6 years ago

Remco Westerink (IRAS, Utrecht University) and Niels Eijkelkamp (UMC Utrecht) are researching new treatments for chronic pain, for example in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. They conduct research into the underlying mechanisms and possible treatments for chronic pain using cultured nerve cells.

Chronic pain is the result of changes in the nervous system at different levels. For example, over-stimulation of the sensory nerve cells that send pain signals to the brain via the spinal cord can cause pain. This is actually a case of an unjustified pain stimulus. The researchers suspect that the immune system may be partly responsible.

Not blocking useful pain signals

For their research into a new method to subdue chronic pain signals, they are testing a protein that was made by other researchers (Prof. Hack and Prof. Lafeber) at the UMC Utrecht. This protein is called IL4-10-synerkine and is made up of two previously known proteins that subdue inflammatory pain. Experiments on animals have shown that the combined protein is more effective and more efficient than the two proteins separately. The challenge is now to suppress chronic pain signals without blocking important warning pain signals, such as the pain you feel when you pick up a hot cup of coffee.

Hot peppers

The research into synerkine’s functional mechanism is being performed on cultured nerve cells, amongst other things. Westerink: “We have cultured various types of nerve cell in the lab in which we can study various aspects that are involved in the processing of pain signals. We can lower the ‘pain barrier’ in these cells using substances from the immune system. We can then measure how active the cells are by causing them ‘pain’ using capsaicin, a compound derived from hot peppers. The lower the pain barrier, the more active the cells become. We then administer the protein IL4-10-synerkine to test whether we can suppress the hyperactivity, and thus also the sensation of pain. One important advantage that this in-vitro method offers is that we can see precisely how and where synerkine works.”

While experiments on animals are still necessary due to the complexity of the sensory system and the neuro-immune interactions, the in-vitro method can be used in early stages to check whether potential pain medication affects nerve cells, which will hopefully lead to an eventual decrease in the number of experiments that need to be conducted on animals.

This article is based on an article by Roy Keeris and Lyanneke Kraus in the staff magazine of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine VETgedrukt.