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For a full list of publications, visit Bryan Black's Google Scholar Page

Nociceptors are a type of sensory neuron that are integral to most forms of pain. Targeted disruption of nociceptor sensitization affords unique opportunities to prevent pain. An emerging model for nociceptors are sensory neurons derived from human stem cells. Here, we subjected five groups to high‐throughput sequencing: human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) prior to differentiation, mature hiPSC‐derived sensory neurons, mature co‐cultures containing hiPSC‐derived astrocytes and sensory neurons, mouse dorsal root ganglion (DRG) tissues, and mouse DRG cultures. Co‐culture of nociceptors and astrocytes promotes expression of transcripts enriched in DRG tissues. Comparisons of the hiPSC models to tissue samples reveal that many key transcripts linked to pain are present. Markers indicative of a range of neuronal subtypes present in the DRG were detected in mature hiPSCs. 

Recent advances in cell and tissue engineering have enabled long-term three-dimensional (3D) in vitro cultures of human-derived neuronal tissues. Analogous two-dimensional (2D) tissue cultures have been used for decades in combination with substrate integrated microelectrode arrays (MEA) for pharmacological and toxicological assessments. While the phenotypic and cytoarchitectural arguments for 3D culture are clear, 3D MEA technologies are presently inadequate. This is mostly due to the technical challenge of creating vertical electrical conduction paths using standardized biocompatible materials and fabrication techniques. Here, we have circumvented that challenge by designing and fabricating a novel helical 3D MEA comprised of polyimide, amorphous silicon carbide (a-SiC), gold/titanium, and sputtered iridium oxide films (SIROF). Electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS) and cyclic voltammetry (CV) testing confirmed fully-fabricated MEAs should be capable of recording extracellular action potentials (EAPs) with high signal-to-noise ratios (SNR). We then seeded induced pluripotent stems cell (iPSC) sensory neurons (SNs) in a 3D collagen-based hydrogel integrated with the helical MEAs and recorded EAPs for up to 28 days in vitro from across the MEA volume. Importantly, this highly adaptable design does not intrinsically limit cell/tissue type, channel count, height, or total volume.

While intracortical microelectrode arrays (MEAs) may be useful in a variety of basic and clinical scenarios, their implementation is hindered by a variety of factors, many of which are related to the stiff material composition of the device. MEAs are often fabricated from high modulus materials such as silicon, leaving devices vulnerable to brittle fracture and thus complicating device fabrication and handling. For this reason, polymer-based devices are being heavily investigated; however, their implementation is often difficult due to mechanical instability that requires insertion aids during implantation. In this study, we design and fabricate intracortical MEAs from a shape memory polymer (SMP) substrate that remains stiff at room temperature but softens to 20 MPa after implantation, therefore allowing the device to be implanted without aids. We demonstrate chronic recordings and electrochemical measurements for 16 weeks in rat cortex and show that the devices are robust to physical deformation, therefore making them advantageous for surgical implementation.

Nav1. 7 and Nav1. 8 channels play a key role in the manifestation of inflammatory pain. The ability to screen compounds that modulate voltage-gated sodium channels using cell-based assays assumes that key channels present in vivo is maintained in vitro.  Here, we demonstrate that the addition of two inflammatory mediators associated with chronic inflammatory pain, nerve growth factor (NGF) and interleukin-6 (IL-6), to adult DRG neurons increases their firing rates on multi-electrode arrays in vitro. Nav1. 7 and Nav1. 8 proteins are readily detected in cultured neurons and contribute to evoked activity. The blockade of both Nav1. 7 and Nav1. 8, has a profound impact on thermally evoked firing after treatment with IL-6 and NGF. This work underscores the utility of multi-electrode arrays for pharmacological studies of sensory neurons and may facilitate the discovery and mechanistic analyses of anti-nociceptive compounds.

Cell-based assays comprising primary sensory neurons cultured in vitro are an emerging tool for the screening and identification of potential analgesic compounds and chronic pain treatments. High-content screening (HCS) platforms for drug screening are characterized by a measure of assay quality indicator, such as the Z’-factor, which considers the signal dynamic range and data variation using control compounds only. Although widely accepted as a quality metric in high throughput screening (HTS), standard Z’-factor are not well-suited to indicate the quality of complex cell-based assays.

Neuropathic pain caused by nerve injury presents with severe spontaneous pain and a variety of comorbidities, including deficits in higher executive functions. None of these clinical problems are adequately treated with current analgesics. Targeting of the mitogen-activated protein kinase-interacting kinase (MNK1/2) and its phosphorylation target, the mRNA cap binding protein eIF4E, attenuates many types of nociceptive plasticity induced by inflammatory mediators and chemotherapeutic drugs but inhibiting this pathway does not alter nerve injury-induced mechanical allodynia. 

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