Embryonic stem cells treat neuropathic pain in preclinical success

Stem cells have made another preclinical advance: In mice, they were used to successfully treat pain stemming from nerve injury, scientists at the University of California-San Francisco reveal.

The team focused for their study on mice with neuropathic pain, transplanting immature embryonic stem cells that grow in the brain during development into the rodents. Their goal: to compensate for specific spinal cord neurons that usually help dampen pain that no longer functioned. It worked, they said, with the pain hypersensitivity related to nerve injury almost completely ending in the mice. What's more, drug treatments used to treat this kind of pain often cause movement disorders, and the mice didn't develop any with the stem cell treatment, according to the study.

It's an interesting result considering that many of the transplanted cells died. A few survived, the researchers say, growing into functioning neurons and then into the spinal cord nerve system where they developed synapses and signaling pathways with nearby neurons.

No argument here: Chronic pain is awful and horrible, and there needs to be better treatment options than narcotic painkillers. But not all of those drugs work well and some don't work at all for large percentages of the affected patients, the researchers note. A stem cell treatment option for neuropathic pain patients is years away and must leap so many hurdles, including further animal trials, human testing, safety obstacles and the like. It must also be affordable and easily repeated. But this research is a good early step.

Study senior author Allan Basbaum, chair of the department of anatomy at UCSF, said in the statement that the stem cell option is worth pursuing.

"We are working toward the possibility of potential treatments that might eliminate the source of neuropathic pain," he said, "and that may be much more effective than drugs that aim only to treat symptomatically the pain that results from chronic, painful conditions." For further study details, read the journal Neuron.

- read the release
- check out the study summary, with video abstract