Targeting nerve growth factor (NGF) for pain management: what does the future hold for NGF antagonists?

Drugs. 2014 Apr;74(6):619-26. doi: 10.1007/s40265-014-0208-6.


It is unanimously accepted that there is an unmet need for pain medications that are both effective and safe. Unfortunately, no really novel analgesics have been approved over the past three decades. In view of both experimental and clinical evidence of a major role for nerve growth factor (NGF) in the generation and maintenance of a wide range of pain states, drug discovery efforts focusing on the development of anti-NGF agents have aroused particular interest. Several humanized anti-NGF monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) have entered clinical trials as potential analgesics. In this respect, tanezumab is at an advanced stage of clinical development while fulranumab, fasinumab and ABT-110, previously known as PG110, are in early phases of clinical development. This Current Opinion article aims at describing the rationale for targeting NGF for pain, reviewing the analgesic efficacy and safety of anti-NGF agents based on data from fully published studies, conference abstracts, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website, and discussing the possible future of these agents in managing chronic pain. Anti-NGF mAbs produced significant pain relief and functional improvement in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee and/or hip. Conversely, studies in non-specific lower back pain generated mixed results; overall, this condition appeared to be less responsive to anti-NGF agents than osteoarthritis. Finally, there was no conclusive evidence of the effectiveness of anti-NGF mAbs in some types of chronic visceral or neuropathic pain. Furthermore, these studies raised safety concerns about anti-NGF mAbs. As a class, these drugs may cause or worsen peripheral neuropathies. But the most problematic issue-which prompted the FDA to place studies of these compounds on clinical hold in 2010-was rapid joint destruction leading to joint replacement surgery. The aetiologies of these side effects have been much debated and their pathophysiology is poorly understood. After an Arthritis Advisory Committee meeting held in March 2012, pharmaceutical companies negotiated with the FDA on the conditions for restarting clinical studies. Although the FDA lifted its clinical hold, there remain many unresolved issues about the long-term efficacy and safety of anti-NGF mAbs. While acknowledging that the future of these drugs is unforeseeable, it appears that they may not be the safe and effective painkillers that have been awaited for decades.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics / adverse effects
  • Analgesics / pharmacology
  • Analgesics / therapeutic use*
  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / adverse effects
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / pharmacology
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / therapeutic use
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Drug Design
  • Humans
  • Nerve Growth Factor / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Pain / drug therapy*
  • Pain / physiopathology
  • United States
  • United States Food and Drug Administration


  • Analgesics
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Nerve Growth Factor