Suppression of IL-6 signaling in a rat model of contusion spinal cord injury (SCI) with clinically available IL-6-R antibody abolishes SCI pain by restoring glutamate transporter levels.
To characterize the contribution of interleukin-6 (IL-6) to spinal cord injury pain (SCIP), we employed a clinically relevant rat contusion model of SCIP. Using Western blots, we measured IL-6 levels in lumbar segments (L1-L5), at the lesion site (T10), and in the corresponding lumbar and thoracic dorsal root ganglia (DRG) in 2 groups of similarly injured rats: (a) SCI rats that developed hind-limb mechanical allodynia (SCIP), and (b) SCI rats that did not develop SCIP. Only in SCIP rats did we find significantly increased IL-6 levels. Immunocytochemistry showed elevated IL-6 predominantly in reactive astrocytes. Our data also showed that increased production of IL-6 in hyperreactive astrocytes in SCIP rats may explain still-poorly understood astrocytic contribution to SCIP. To test the hypothesis that IL-6 contributes to mechanical allodynia, we treated SCIP rats with neutralizing IL-6 receptor antibody (IL-6-R Ab), and found that one systemic injection abolished allodynia and associated weight loss; in contrast to gabapentin, the analgesic effect lasted for at least 2 weeks after the injection, despite the shorter presence of the Ab in the circulation. We also showed that IL-6-R Ab partially reversed SCI-induced decreases in the protein levels of the glutamate transporter GLT-1 12 hours and 8 days after Ab injection, which may explain the lasting analgesic effect of the Ab in SCIP rats. A link between reactive astrocytes IL-6-GLT-1 has not been previously shown. Given that the humanized IL-6-R Ab tocilizumab is Food and Drug Administration-approved for rheumatoid arthritis, we are proposing tocilizumab as a novel and potentially effective treatment for SCIP.