Dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons detect sensory inputs and are crucial for pain processing. They are often studied in vitro as dissociated cell cultures with the assumption that this reasonably represents in vivo conditions. However, to our knowledge, no study has directly compared genome-wide transcriptomes of DRG tissue in vivo versus in vitro, or between laboratories and culturing protocols. Comparing RNA sequencing-based transcriptomes of native to cultured (4 days in vitro) human or mouse DRG, we found that the overall expression levels of many ion channels and GPCRs specifically expressed in neurons are markedly lower although still expressed in culture. This suggests that most pharmacological targets expressed in vivo are present under the condition of dissociated cell culture, but with changes in expression levels. The reduced relative expression for neuronal genes in human DRG cultures is likely accounted for by increased expression of genes in fibroblast-like and other proliferating cells, consistent with their mitotic status in these cultures. We found that the expression of a subset of genes typically expressed in neurons increased in human and mouse DRG cultures relative to the intact ganglion, including genes associated with nerve injury or inflammation in preclinical models such as BDNF, MMP9, GAL, and ATF3. We also found a striking upregulation of a number of inflammation-associated genes in DRG cultures, although many were different between mouse and human. Our findings suggest an injury-like phenotype in DRG cultures that has important implications for the use of this model system for pain drug discovery.
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