Living ‘nerve circuit’ could test opioid alternatives

(Credit: Getty Images)

Researchers have designed a living bioengineered nerve circuit that mimics the pain transmission pathway in the spinal cord.

They designed the living circuit to help scientists test the effectiveness of non-addictive alternatives to opioid painkillers.

In 2019, nearly 50,000 people in the United States died from opioid overdoses, bringing the total of number of deaths from the opioid crisis to half a million over the past 10 years, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. The circuit of living cells aims to turn those statistics around.

“We show that this model system behaves physiologically similar to the circuit that carries the pain signal, and we show that it responds to pain drugs, like morphine and lidocaine, in ways that are reproducible and measurable and distinct for each type of drug,” says Michael J. Moore, a professor of biomedical engineering at Tulane University School of Science and Engineering.

“What we hope is that we will be able to use this model system to more quickly identify possible candidates for new painkillers, which right now can only be done through an arduous series of behavioral studies with animals.”

The study is his first paper under the HEAL Initiative, or Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative, a $945 million, multi-university funding endeavor sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

HEAL was launched in April 2018 to provide scientific solutions to the national opioid overdose crisis, including improved treatment strategies for pain as well as opioid use disorders (OUDs). Funded by Congress, the initiative involves numerous universities and almost every NIH institute and center in order to approach the crisis from all angles and disciplines.

Moore is continuing to work with Randolph Ashton, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, and Swaminathan Rajaraman, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Central Florida. Ashton is developing human stem-cell derived spinal neurons, and Rajaraman is developing specially-made microelectrodes for taking electrical measurements from the cells.

“In this next phase of the project,” Moore says, “we will seek to better characterize the physiology of our model system, improve its physiological relevance, and determine whether we can mimic some of the biological processes associated with drug tolerance.”

The paper appears in the journal Science Advances.

Source: Tulane University