Scientists have developed and tested a vaccine that they say could be used to treat chronic pain caused by osteoarthritis.

In a collaborative effort led by the Jenner Institute and the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology at the University of Oxford, researchers developed a virus-like particle vaccine able to trigger the immune system to produce antibodies to block naturally-occurring NGF, which causes pain in patients with osteoarthritis.

The new vaccine was tested in mice that had signs of painful osteoarthritis – an uneven distribution of weight across the hind legs, and it was shown to “visibly reverse” these effects, they said.

Osteoarthritis is the most common joint disease in humans, but less than 25% of patients currently have adequate pain control for their condition, and long-term use of certain painkillers can pose significant risks to health, highlighting the need for new treatment options.

“Too many people living with pain do not get effective relief from the treatments that are currently available, and that is why the development of more effective pain killers, with fewer side-effects, is vital for people living with arthritis,” said Dr Stephen Simpson, director of research at charity Versus Arthritis, which funded the research.

“Although at an early stage, this is highly innovative research and these results are very promising.”

“This is the first successful vaccination to target pain in osteoarthritis, one of the biggest healthcare challenges of our generation,” added Professor Tonia Vincent of Oxford University’s Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology.

“Whilst there are still safety issues that need to be considered before these types of approaches can be used in patients, we are reassured that this vaccine design allows us to control antibody levels and thus tailor treatment to individual cases according to need.”

The research paper, Active immunization targeting Nerve Growth Factor attenuates chronic pain behavior in murine osteoarthritis, can be read in the Annals of Rheumatic Disease.