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Open Access Open Badges Research

Genome-wide analysis of pain-, nerve- and neurotrophin -related gene expression in the degenerating human annulus

Helen E Gruber12*, Gretchen L Hoelscher1, Jane A Ingram1 and Edward N Hanley1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Carolinas Medical Center, PO Box 32861, Charlotte, NC, 28232, USA

2 Orthopaedic Research Biology, Cannon Research., Room 304, Carolinas Medical Center, PO Box 32861, Charlotte, NC, 28232, USA

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Molecular Pain 2012, 8:63  doi:10.1186/1744-8069-8-63

Published: 10 September 2012



In spite of its high clinical relevance, the relationship between disc degeneration and low back pain is still not well understood. Recent studies have shown that genome-wide gene expression studies utilizing ontology searches provide an efficient and valuable methodology for identification of clinically relevant genes. Here we use this approach in analysis of pain-, nerve-, and neurotrophin-related gene expression patterns in specimens of human disc tissue. Control, non-herniated clinical, and herniated clinical specimens of human annulus tissue were studied following Institutional Review Board approval.


Analyses were performed on more generated (Thompson grade IV and V) discs vs. less degenerated discs (grades I-III), on surgically operated discs vs. control discs, and on herniated vs. control discs. Analyses of more degenerated vs. less degenerated discs identified significant upregulation of well-recognized pain-related genes (bradykinin receptor B1, calcitonin gene-related peptide and catechol-0-methyltransferase). Nerve growth factor was significantly upregulated in surgical vs. control and in herniated vs. control discs. All three analyses also found significant changes in numerous proinflammatory cytokine- and chemokine-related genes. Nerve, neurotrophin and pain-ontology searches identified many matrix, signaling and functional genes which have known importance in the disc. Immunohistochemistry was utilized to confirm the presence of calcitonin gene-related peptide, catechol-0-methyltransferase and bradykinin receptor B1 at the protein level in the human annulus.


Findings point to the utility of microarray analyses in identification of pain-, neurotrophin and nerve-related genes in the disc, and point to the importance of future work exploring functional interactions between nerve and disc cells in vitro and in vivo. Nerve, pain and neurotrophin ontology searches identified numerous changes in proinflammatory cytokines and chemokines which also have significant relevance to disc biology. Since the degenerating human disc is primarily an avascular tissue site into which disc cells have contributed high levels of proinflammatory cytokines, these substances are not cleared from the tissue and remain there over time. We hypothesize that as nerves grow into the human annulus, they encounter a proinflammatory cytokine-rich milieu which may sensitize nociceptors and exacerbate pain production.

Low back pain; Neurotrophins; Nerves; Microarray analysis