ARI, EU partners seek holistic solution to the problem of pain

Researchers attending training for the PIANO project at the AO Research Institute Davos, Switzerland, April 2022

Fifteen young researchers specializing in a wide range of different areas came together at the AO Research Institute Davos (ARI) under the auspices of PIANO, a project addressing musculoskeletal pain—the leading global cause of disability—through the development of tools that identify and visualize mechanisms of nociception in the dorsal root ganglia outside of the central nervous system. PIANO is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions-Innovative Training Networks (MSCA-ITN) project funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.

The project’s first training event, targeting young students and researchers all over the world, was held from April 4 to April 6, 2022. ARI carries out research into orthopaedic regeneration, hence connecting with pain researchers is an important part of this work. Back pain is, for example, the most common type of pain in the world, but there is little understanding of its mechanism.

Junxuan Ma is involved with PIANO from the ARI side. He explains why this is such a complex area: “Pain is also, fundamentally, subjective. We use in vitro and organ culture models to investigate how spine structures communicate with the sensory nervous system, but the association with pain needs validation. Connecting with pain researchers adds a new level of exploration to our work.”

“We were invited to work as a partner in this project alongside numerous institutes in many different EU countries,” Junxuan added. “Within PIANO, we are a broad group, from materials scientists to neurologists. This allows us to identify the mechanisms at play in the experience of pain in order to find new treatments.”

The training sessions give ARI the opportunity to share their experience and the knowledge they have built with people from complementary disciplines addressing the same, or directly related, problems. As a result, this opens more avenues for collaboration.

“I joined the PIANO consortium meeting in London, and I am excited to visit other partners. It is a good chance to meet, see what each researcher is doing, and make a positive contribution to our project partners’ work, too,” Junxuan said.

“At ARI, PIANO project partners had the opportunity to see firsthand the high standards of animal welfare we have in place for animal-related research. They took a tour through our EU-leading specific-pathogen-free-sheep facility, visited the bioreactors we have for whole intervertebral disc organ culture models, and engaged in learning the culture of large animal dorsal root ganglion,” Junxuan explained.

Seeing all this together gave the visiting PIANO students an insight into how ARI is pushing the boundaries of research—working on tissue fabrication and creating cultures that are closer to in vivo structures. This is, they understood, essential in the work to replace the use of animals in research.

The same 15 students will have their next training session in the Netherlands in October 2022.