Research outline - Laboratory of Neuroglycobiology and Sensation

Within: Bosch Institute, Discipline of Anatomy and Histology

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Overview of research program

Chronic pain has long been attributed to an alteration in the anatomy and physiology of neuronal pathways.
Specifically, the subpopulation of nociceptors which express binding sites for the plant lectin Bandeiraea simplicifolia I isolectin B4 (IB4) has been shown to play a direct role in the development of neuropathic pain. Nerve injury results in a decrease in IB4 binding in both the dorsal root ganglion and the superficial dorsal horn of the spinal cord suggesting either death of the IB4 binding nociceptors, a downregulation of their expression of the IB4 binding site or perhaps structural alteration in the IB4 binding site itself. Recent anatomical studies in our laboratory have provided evidence that BS-IB4 binding nociceptors do actually survive partial nerve injury (although they do show signs of damage) but have a reduced ability to bind IB4, thereby explaining the decrease in IB4 binding previously reported.
It is possible that these surviving, yet injured, primary sensory neurones contribute to the hyper excitation believed to underlie neuropathic pain sensory symptoms.

Previous studies in fields such as cancer research have used the technique of targeted cell death to selectively kill particular cell types in order to understand their contribution to disease states.
This technique involves linking a cell toxin with a vehicle molecule which selectively binds to unique receptors present only in the membrane of a particular type of cell. Once the linked toxin-vehicle conjugate binds to the appropriate receptor in the membrane of the targeted cell type, the cell takes both the vehicle and the toxin inside and the toxin causes the targeted cell to die … thereby causing targeted cell death. Targeted cell death offers a novel way to study the contribution of a particular cell type to a disease process by selectively removing its contribution to the disease development.
In some cases targeted cell death may even hold the key to disease relief, as separate reports of targeted nociceptor death and targeted microglial suppression have shown symptom reduction after nervous system damage.

Saporin is a toxin that causes cell deterioration and death by interfering with protein synthesis.
It is unable to enter cells without a vehicle, but conjugating it to an appropriate vehicle can make it an excellent candidate for targeted cell death. Thus a conjugate of saporin and IB4 would conceptually act to selectively ablate the nociceptors that express the IB4 binding site. Studies have shown that a single injection of IB4-SAP into the sciatic nerve results in a decrease in baseline pain sensitivity as well as a delay in the onset of neuropathic pain symptoms. However, whilst it has been shown that the nociceptors ablated by IB4-SAP do not recover, it has been reported that even in the face of IB4 nociceptor absence, neuropathic pain symptoms do eventually appear up to 4 weeks post- nerve injury.
These findings give leverage to the current belief that the traditional idea of neuropathic pain being a mere result of altered neuronal processing is too simplistic and also explains why pain therapies targeting neurons alone have been less than adequate to date.

It is now widely accepted that, along with neurons, glial cells, including microglia and astrocytes, play a significant role in the induction and maintenance of chronic pain symptoms.
Microglial infiltration specifically is reported in the superficial dorsal horn of the spinal cord after a variety of nerve injury methods. Moreover, just like alterations in neuronal processing, alterations in microglial infiltration has been associated with changes in neuropathic pain symptoms suggesting chronic pain conditions may rely on a neuron-glial link for development and maintenance.
In support of this theory we have very recently demonstrated that targeted ablation of a subpopulation of primary sensory neurons prior to nerve injury reduces microglial infiltration as a consequence of injury and highlights the presence of the nociceptor-glial link underlying neuropathic pain conditions.

The aim of current research in this laboratory is to further elucidate this neuropathic neuron-glial link by examining peripheral and central markers of glial activation and infiltration in both the presence and absence of IB4 nociceptors in models of neuropathic pain.
It is hoped that the results of this study will serve to clarify the respective roles and involvement of both nociceptors and glia in the development and maintenance of neuropathic pain conditions in an attempt to ultimately unravel more specific and effective pain control strategies for the sufferers of chronic pain conditions.

Major funding sources

  • NHMRC 2007-2009. Targeted ablation of sensory neurons and glial cells with a view to relieving neuropathic pain. $270,250 over 3 years (to be extended to end 2010)
  • Clive and Vera Ramaciotti Establishment Grant 2007- 2008 (extended to end 2009). Relieving chronic pain by killing the nerve cells involved in pain transmission. $14,560 over 2 years
  • Rebecca Cooper Medical Foundation Research Grant. Killing chronic pain by killing the cells indicated in chronic pain development after damage to the nervous system. $19,000 lump sum

Selected publications

Bagley, E.E., Gerke, M.B., Vaughan, C.W., Hack, S.P. and Christie, M.J. (2005) GAT-1 transporter currents activated by protein kinase A excite midbrain neurons during opioid withdrawal. Neuron. 45: 433-445.

Thornton, P.J., Gerke, M.B. and Plenderleith, M.B. (2005) Histochemical localisation of a galactose-containing glycoconjugate expressed by sensory neurones innervating different peripheral tissues. Journal of the Peripheral Nervous System. 10: 47-57.

Gerke, M.B. and Plenderleith, M.B. (2004) Ultrastructural analysis of the central terminals of primary sensory neurones labelled by transganglionic transport of Bandeiraea simplicifolia I-isolectin B4. Neuroscience. 127: 165-175.

Gerke, M.B. and Plenderleith, M.B. (2004) Analysis of the unmyelinated primary sensory neurone projection through the dorsal columns of the rat spinal cord using transganglionic transport of Bandeiraea simplicifolia I-isolectin B4. Journal of the Neurological Sciences. 22: 69-77.

Gerke, M.B., Xu, L., Duggan, A.W. and Siddall, P.J. (2003) Thalamic neuronal activity in rats with mechanical allodynia following contusive spinal cord injury. Neuroscience, 117: 715-722.

Gerke, M.B. and Plenderleith, M.B. (2002). Distribution of binding sites for the plant lectin Ulex europaeus agglutinin I on primary sensory neurones in seven different mammalian species. The Histochemical Journal. 34: 79-84.

Gerke, M.B. and Plenderleith, M.B. (2002) Analysis of the distribution of binding sites for the plant lectin Bandeiraea simplicifolia I-isolectin B4 on primary sensory neurones in seven mammalian species. The Anatomical Record, 268: 105-114.

Gerke, M.B. and Plenderleith, M.B. (2001) Binding sites for the plant lectin Bandeiraea simplicifolia I-isolectin B4 are expressed by nociceptive primary sensory neurones. Brain Research, 911: 101-104.