Pain is a major medical problem that affects a huge portion of the population. Existing therapeutics for pain are often ineffective, leaving many with few options to alleviate their pain. Despite decades of research and substantial investment, few treatments have emerged that can ameliorate pain without harmful side effects such as addiction. New model systems that could be used to develop more effective pain therapeutics would greatly benefit the scientific field and the patients who suffer from pain.
Investigators at the Center for Advanced Pain Studies (CAPS; paincenter.utdallas.edu) at the University of Texas at Dallas are focused on developing new, non-addicting pain medicines. As part of these efforts, CAPS Investigators Drs. Benedict Kolber, Theodore Price and Gregory Dussor have been striving to develop better model systems that more accurately reflect human pain-sensing neurons, called nociceptors. Says lead investigator Dr. Kolber, “You can create unlimited amounts of a cell type expressing a single human pain-related channel, but it will be missing the bigger picture on what pain is all about. On the other hand, you can use the actual human nociceptors from cadavers that are the real deal, but they’re nearly impossible to obtain. It’s been difficult to find cells that reflect human nociceptor biology well enough that are available in quantities useful for drug development programs. It’s really been holding investigators back.”
As the field has struggled with this fundamental problem, investigators at the start-up Anatomic were brewing up a solution. Anatomic has learned to manufacture human nociceptors very rapidly, reproducibly, and at scale from human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs). By mimicking natural processes that occur during human gestation, Anatomic ushers hPSCs — which can transform into any cell type in the human body — into nociceptors exclusively. This manufacturing prowess, however, means nothing if the end product doesn’t function as expected. “As you develop and look to apply these very complex technologies that are supposed to reflect actual human biology, people are always going to ask how close you are to the real thing. We became familiar with the work of the folks at UT Dallas such as Drs. Price and Dussor who are looking to create a benchmark for these pain-sensing neurons, and we asked them how ours might compare,” says Anatomic CEO Patrick Walsh.