Adoptive transfer of M2 macrophages reduces neuropathic pain via opioid peptides

J Neuroinflammation. 2016 Oct 7;13(1):262. doi: 10.1186/s12974-016-0735-z.


Background: During the inflammation which occurs following nerve damage, macrophages are recruited to the site of injury. Phenotypic diversity is a hallmark of the macrophage lineage and includes pro-inflammatory M1 and anti-inflammatory M2 populations. Our aim in this study was to investigate the ability of polarized M0, M1, and M2 macrophages to secrete opioid peptides and to examine their relative contribution to the modulation of neuropathic pain.

Methods: Mouse bone marrow-derived cells were cultured as unstimulated M0 macrophages or were stimulated into an M1 phenotype using lipopolysaccharide and interferon-γ or into an M2 phenotype using interleukin-4. The macrophage phenotypes were verified using flow cytometry for surface marker analysis and cytokine bead array for cytokine profile assessment. Opioid peptide levels were measured by radioimmunoassay and enzyme immunoassay. As a model of neuropathic pain, a chronic constriction injury (CCI) of the sciatic nerve was employed. Polarized M0, M1, and M2 macrophages (5 × 105 cells) were injected perineurally twice, on days 14 and 15 following CCI or sham surgery. Mechanical and heat sensitivity were measured using the von Frey and Hargreaves tests, respectively. To track the injected macrophages, we also transferred fluorescently stained polarized cells and analyzed the surface marker profile of endogenous and injected cells in the nerves ex vivo.

Results: Compared to M0 and M1 cells, M2 macrophages contained and released higher amounts of opioid peptides, including Met-enkephalin, dynorphin A (1-17), and β-endorphin. M2 cells transferred perineurally at the nerve injury site reduced mechanical, but not heat hypersensitivity following the second injection. The analgesic effect was reversed by the perineurally applied opioid receptor antagonist naloxone methiodide. M2 cells did not affect sensitivity following sham surgery. Neither M0 nor M1 cells altered mechanical and heat sensitivity in CCI or sham-operated animals. Tracing the fluorescently labeled M0, M1, and M2 cells ex vivo showed that they remained in the nerve and preserved their phenotype.

Conclusions: Perineural transplantation of M2 macrophages resulted in opioid-mediated amelioration of neuropathy-induced mechanical hypersensitivity, while M1 macrophages did not exacerbate pain. Therefore, rather than focusing on macrophage-induced pain generation, promoting opioid-mediated M2 actions may be more relevant for pain control.

Keywords: Analgesia; Dynorphin; Endorphin; Enkephalin; Macrophage; Neuropathic pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acyltransferases / metabolism
  • Adoptive Transfer / methods*
  • Animals
  • Cell Polarity / drug effects
  • Cytokines / metabolism*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Dynorphins / metabolism
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class II / metabolism
  • Hyperalgesia / metabolism
  • Hyperalgesia / physiopathology
  • Lipopolysaccharides / pharmacology
  • Macrophages / classification
  • Macrophages / drug effects
  • Macrophages / physiology*
  • Macrophages / transplantation
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Neuralgia / immunology*
  • Neuralgia / pathology*
  • Opioid Peptides / metabolism*
  • Pain Threshold / physiology
  • Physical Stimulation
  • beta-Endorphin / metabolism


  • Cytokines
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class II
  • Lipopolysaccharides
  • Opioid Peptides
  • beta-Endorphin
  • Dynorphins
  • Acyltransferases
  • 2-acylglycerophosphate acyltransferase