A review in the Journal of Stem Cell Research & Therapy has summarized an array of studies that demonstrate that a specific type of stem cell – the mesenchymal stem cell – may be beneficial as a therapeutic approach to chronic pain. The authors point to the huge burden of chronic pain. It is estimated that more than 115 people suffer from the condition, which is more than those who suffer from diabetes, stroke, cancer, and coronary heart disease combined.
Chronic pain is also associated with significant losses in productivity. Given how extreme the burden of chronic pain has become, the National Institute of Medicine has suggested that finding effective ways to alleviate chronic pain should become a priority for the nation.
Regenerative medicine has offered an effective way to treat a variety of injuries and diseases, including some that are related to chronic pain. As the term “regenerative medicine” implies, much of the research into the clinical effects of stem cells have shown that they lead to beneficial outcomes by regenerating damaged tissue by replacing that tissue with new cells.
This new review looks at the potential of mesenchymal stem cells to specifically improve chronic pain through the ability of the cells to suppress inflammation. Given that inflammation is a common characteristic of conditions associated with chronic pain, a strategy that addresses this phenomenon could represent an effective way to help those with chronic pain that comes from things like degenerative disc disease and osteoarthritis.
The current approaches to chronic pain are limited in their ability to reduce or control pain, so there is a great need to develop more effective therapies. Research thus far into the potential impact of mesenchymal stem cells on chronic pain has provided promising results regarding effectiveness and safety. Specifically, these stem cells have not been associated with adverse side effects, they lead to the development and growth of healthy tissue, and they appear to provide pain relief. Future research will help to clarify the mechanisms by which mesenchymal stem cells may confer their benefits to those with chronic pain and provide new insights into how can best use these cells to help chronic pain sufferers.
Reference: Waterman, R.S. & Betancourt, A.M. (2011). Treating chronic pain with mesenchymal stem cells: A therapeutic approach worthy of continued investigation. Journal of Stem Cell Research & Therapy, S2, 1-5.
The spinal column is made up of more than a dozen vertebral bones stacked on top of each other. Since the spine is not a single bone, it is capable of pivoting and bending, which gives the torso a degree of flexibility. A key part of this structure relies on the substance between the vertebral bones called the intravertebral disc.
The intravertebral disc is made up of the annulus fibrosis (the tough outer ring) and the nucleus pulposus (the jelly-like inner core). Each intervertebral disc acts as a shock absorber between the vertebral bones. Over time and with age, however, the intervertebral disc tends to breakdown. This can cause called degenerative disc disease, which includes herniated discs (“slipped discs”), pinched nerves, neck and back pain, and nerve problems. Obviously, finding ways to reverse or prevent intravertebral discs from breaking down is of great medical and scientific interest and for the countless patients with degenerative disc disease.
As with other groups interested in regenerative medicine, researchers have turned to stem cells in an effort to regenerate tissue within the intravertebral disc. One research group reported their recent success using bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells. The scientists collected exosomes—very small packets filled with highly concentrated molecules such as proteins, microRNA, transcription factors and lipids—from these stem cells. In this study, researchers also collected exosomes from nucleus pulposus cells and tested the exosomes in various ways.
The researchers found that exosomes could send out signals to bone marrow mesenchymal cells and call them to the intervertebral disc. The exosomes also prompted the stem cells to become new nucleus pulposus-like cells. Conversely, exosomes from bone marrow mesenchymal cells caused nucleus pulposus cells to grow and multiply (i.e. proliferate). Finally, exosomes helped the tissue in degenerating vertebral discs to express the same genes as healthy discs.
While these results are complex, they suggest that exosomes from bone marrow mesenchymal cells and nucleus pulposus cells work together to recruit and make more healthy cells in degenerating vertebral discs. This could have profound implications for the millions of people with degenerative disc disease. If these results are confirmed in clinical trials, it would mean that exosomes could be used to prevent or reverse degenerative disc disease. We anxiously await further work in this exciting field.
Reference: Kang L. et al. (2017). Exosomes as potential alternatives to stem cell therapy for intervertebral disc degeneration: in-vitro study on exosomes in interaction of nucleus pulposus cells and bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells. Stem Cell Research Therapy. 2017; 8: 108.