Intrathecal bone marrow stromal cells inhibit neuropathic pain via TGF-β secretion

Neuropathic pain remains a pressing clinical problem. Here, we demonstrate that a local, intrathecal (i.t.) injection of bone marrow stromal cells (BMSCs) following lumbar puncture alleviates early- and late-phase neuropathic pain symptoms, such as allodynia and hyperalgesia, for several weeks in murine chronic constriction injury (CCI) and spared nerve injury models. Moreover, i.t. BMSCs reduced CCI-induced spontaneous pain and axonal injury of dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons and inhibited CCI-evoked neuroinflammation in DRGs and spinal cord tissues. BMSCs secreted TGF-β1 into the cerebrospinal fluid, and neutralization of TGF-β1, but not IL-10, reversed the analgesic effect of BMSCs. Conversely, i.t. administration of TGF-β1 potently inhibited neuropathic pain. TGF-β1 acted as a powerful neuromodulator and rapidly (within minutes) suppressed CCI-evoked spinal synaptic plasticity and DRG neuronal hyperexcitability via TGF-β receptor 1–mediated noncanonical signaling. Finally, nerve injury upregulated CXCL12 in lumbar L4–L6 DRGs, and this upregulation caused migration of i.t.-injected BMSCs to DRGs through the CXCL12 receptor CXCR4, which was expressed on BMSCs. BMSCs that migrated from the injection site survived at the border of DRGs for more than 2 months. Our findings support a paracrine mechanism by which i.t. BMSCs target CXCL12-producing DRGs to elicit neuroprotection and sustained neuropathic pain relief via TGF-β1 secretion.