Ru-Rong Ji, PhD
Principal Investigator
Distinguished Professor of Anesthesiology, in the School of Medicine
Professor in Anesthesiology
Professor in Cell Biology
Professor in Neurobiology

Contact Us

Duke University Medical Center
DUMC Box 3094
Office: 919-684-9387
Fax: 919-684-2411

Shirley Morton
Staff Assistant

Lab Description

Sensory Plasticity and Pain Research Laboratory

Chronic pain is a major health problem in the US and affects 100 million Americans, but the current treatments for chronic pain are inadequate. The current epidemic of opioid abuse is a result of lack of efficient pain medicine.

The main goal of the lab is to identify novel molecular and cellular mechanisms that underlie the genesis of chronic pain. We employ a multidisciplinary approach that covers in vitro, ex vivo, and in vivo electrophysiology, cell biology of glial cells, immune cells, and cancer cells, transgenic mice, and mouse behaviors of various sensory modalities after inflammation, nerve injury, and cancers.

We believe that tackling the mechanisms of pain induction and resolution will lead to the development of novel therapeutics for preventing and treating chronic pain.

Lab Opportunities

The Ji lab is always recruiting talented postdoctoral fellows, visiting scholars, graduate students, and undergraduate students. Interested candidates should email their CV, a brief statement of interests, and a list of three references.

Email Dr. Ru-Rong Ji

Major Research Interests

Pain and Itch Regulation by Non-Neuronal Cells and InflammationPain and Itch Regulation by Non-Neuronal Cells and Inflammation [PMID: 27811267]

  • On a cellular level, we investigate how non-neuronal cells such as glial cells, immune cells, stem cells, and cancer cells contribute to acute and chronic pain conditions through their interactions with nociceptive neurons (nociceptors) in the peripheral nervous system (dorsal root ganglion and trigeminal ganglion neurons) or the central nervous system (spinal cord nociceptors).
  • On a molecular level, we investigate how different non-neuronal cell types contribute to pain conditions, through their production of painful (pro-nociceptive) or pain-relieving (anti-nociceptive) signaling molecules. These include conventional immune pathways, such as cytokines, chemokines, and toll-like receptors (TLRs), as well as unconventional neuromodulators, such as secreted miRNAs [PMID: 24698267]
Pain and Itch Regulation by Non-Neuronal Cells and Inflammation
  • We also study the distinct cellular and molecular mechanisms responsible for acute and chronic itch [PMID: 21037581, 30033153].

Resolution mechanisms and mediators of pain [PMID: 20383154, PMID: 21963090]

One of the key mechanisms for the transition from acute pain to chronic pain is a failure in the resolution of acute pain and acute inflammation.

  • We investigate how specialized pro-resolution mediators (SPMs), such as resolvins, neuroprotectins, and marresins, derived from omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids DHA and EPA, control pain by regulating inflammation, glial activation, TRP channels, and synaptic plasticity [PMID: 22171045].

Immune checkpoint inhibitors in the nervous system [PMID 28530662]

We examine how PD-L1 and PD-1 regulate neuronal activity in the PNS and CNS.

Development of Novel Pain Therapeutics and Diagnosis for the Translation from Bench to Bed

  • Specialized Proresolving Mediators (SPMs) [PMID: 30010619]: We investigate how SPMs, such as neuroprotectin D1 (NPD1) alleviate pain via specific receptors (e.g., GPR37) and distinct mechanisms (phagocytosis).
  • Stem cells [PMID: 26168219]: We are testing new methods that can enhance the homing and analgesic efficacy of bone marrow stem cells.
  • Immune therapy and cancer pain [PMID 28530662]: We examine how PD-L1 and PD-1 regulate neuronal activity and cancer pain.
  • Neuromodulation: We investigate how neuromodulation such as electroacupuncture and auricular stimulation can produce long-term pain relief via regulation of neuro- inflammation.
  • Human sensory neurons [PMID: 28424991, 27916453, 26479925]: We use human DRG neurons from donors to test mechanisms and treatments of clinical pain in “a dish”.

In the News

March 2022

The Physiology of Pain | American Physiological Society

December 23, 2021

The Most Popular PRF News Story of 2021 Explored the Discovery of a Sex-Specific Pain Mechanism

December 17, 2021

STING Immunotherapy: A Complementary Approach to Treating Bone Cancer Pain

November 23, 2021

Dr. Ji Named a Highly Cited Researcher

November 12, 2021

Sex-Specific Differences in Pain Mechanism

October 27, 2021

Cancer Drug ‘Junkyard’ Screen Identifies Compound That Resets Genetic Switch to Reduce Chronic Pain, Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, Wolfgang Liedtke, Michele Yeo, Yong Chen, Ru-Rong Ji

June 23, 2021

High-Fat Diet Can Cause Chronic Pain, Bariatric News, Aidan McGinnis, Ru-Rong Ji

February 1, 2021

Dr. Ji Named CTPM Director

November 19, 2020

Dr. Ji is Among One of 37 Highly-Cited-Duke Investigators

July 21, 2020

Dr. Ji Receives 2020 American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) Excellence in Research Award

June 5, 2020

Paper’s of the Week, Editor’s pick, Pain Research Forum

May 11, 2020

Congratulations to Dr. Christopher Donnelly on Earning First Place in Two Award Competitions for His Research Project in Which He Identified a New Role for a Protein, Called STING, in the Regulation of Pain.

January 23, 2020
Dr. Ji Receives Founders Award from the American Academy of Pain Medicine

December 19, 2019
Duke Today: Cryo-Electron Microscope Captures Details of the ‘Wasabi Sensor’

November 19, 2019
Global List of Highly Cited Puts Duke in Top Ten

December 3, 2018
Anesthesiologist Named a Highly Cited Researcher for 2018

August 13, 2018
Tiny Bits of RNA Can Trigger Pain and Itchiness - Science News

August 8, 2018
Small RNAs, but Sizable Itch: TRPA1 Activation by an Extracellular MicroRNA - Science Direct
Inflammatory Pain: Be It Resolved! - Pain Research Forum

June 30, 2018
Ji lab fellow awarded John J. Bonica Fellowship from International Association for the Study of Pain

November 8, 2017
Star-Shaped Brain Cells Orchestrate Neural Connections - Duke Today

June 7, 2017
How Cancers Mask Pain so Tumors Can Grow Unnoticed - STAT

May 23, 2017
Immunotherapy Target Suppresses Pain to Mask Cancer - Duke Today

May 22, 2017
New painkiller discovered in cancer cells - The San Diego Union

February 27, 2017
School of Medicine Recognizes “Noteworthy” Faculty - Duke Anesthesiology
Endowed Professorships - Duke Anesthesiology

January 4, 2017
Autism Gene Modulates Thermal Pain - Pain Research Forum

December 1, 2016
Autism-Linked Protein Crucial for Feeling Pain - ScienceDaily
Autism-Linked Protein Crucial For Feeling Pain - Duke Today

November 14, 2016
Dr. Ji Published in Special Issue of Science - Duke Anesthesiology

November 5, 2015
Targeting Toll-like receptors to treat chronic pain - Nature Medicine

December 1, 2015
Pain: TLR5 opens the door to neuropathic-pain treatment. - NCBI

August 11, 2015
Stem Cells Quell Neuropathic Pain in Mice - Pain Research Forum

July 13, 2016
Pain Relief Breakthrough: Experimental Stem Cell Procedure - Medical Daily
Stem Cells Provide Lasting Pain Relief in Mice - NIH
Stem Cells Provide Lasting Pain Relief in Mice - Duke Today

October 28, 2014
Diverse Interests in the Basic Science of Pain: A Conversation With Ru-Rong Ji - Pain Research Forum

July 17, 2013
Uncovering a Healthier Remedy for Chronic Pain - Duke Today

May 7, 2012
Duke Announces 2012 Distinguished Professors - Duke Today

Lab Members

Sharat Chandra, PhD
Postdoctoral Fellow

Ouyang Chen
PhD Student

Kenta Furutani, MD, PhD
Research Fellow

Ran Guo, MD, PhD
Research Fellow

Wei He, PhD
Research Fellow

Michael Lee
Undergraduate Student

Yutaka Matsuoka, MD, PhD
Research Fellow

Aidan McGinnis
Lab Technician

Sreya Rahman
Undergraduate Student

Alexus Roberts
Undergraduate Student

Michael Wang
Undergraduate Student

Yuqing Wang, PhD
Research Fellow

Jing Xu, PhD
Research Fellow

Matthew Yuan
Undergraduate Student

Selected Publications

Selected Recent Publications at Duke (Since 2012)

  1. Luo X, Chen O, Wang Z, Bang S, Ji J, Lee SH, Huh Y, Furutani K, He Q, Tao X, Ko MC, Bortsov A, Donnelly CR, Chen Y, Nackley A, Berta T, Ji RR. IL-23/IL-17A/TRPV1 axis produces mechanical pain via macrophage-sensory neuron crosstalk in female mice. Neuron. 2021 Sep 1;109(17):2691-2706.e5.
  2. Baldwin KT, Tan CX, Strader ST, Jiang C, Savage JT, Elorza-Vidal X, Contreras X, Rülicke T, Hippenmeyer S, Estévez R, Ji RR, Eroglu C. HepaCAM controls astrocyte self-organization and coupling. Neuron. 2021 Aug 4;109(15):2427-2442.e10.
  3. Wang K, Donnelly CR, Jiang C, Liao Y, Luo X, Tao X, Bang S, McGinnis A, Lee M, Hilton MJ, Ji RR. STING suppresses bone cancer pain via immune and neuronal modulation. Nat Commun. 2021 Jul 27;12(1):4558.
  4. Donnelly CR, Jiang C, Andriessen AS, Wang K, Wang Z, Ding H, Zhao J, Luo X, Lee MS, Lei YL, Maixner W, Ko MC, Ji RR. STING controls nociception via type I interferon signalling in sensory neurons. Nature. 2021 Mar;591(7849):275-280.
  5. Wang Z, Jiang C, Yao H, Chen O, Rahman S, Gu Y, Zhao J, Huh Y, Ji RR. Central opioid receptors mediate morphine-induced itch and chronic itch via disinhibition. Brain. 2021 Mar 3;144(2):665-681.
  6. Deerhake ME, Danzaki K, Inoue M, Cardakli ED, Nonaka T, Aggarwal N, Barclay WE, Ji RR, Shinohara ML. Dectin-1 limits autoimmune neuroinflammation and promotes myeloid cell-astrocyte crosstalk via Card9-independent expression of Oncostatin M. Immunity. 2021 Mar 9;54(3):484-498.e8.
  7. Bang S, Donnelly CR, Luo X, Toro-Moreno M, Tao X, Wang Z, Chandra S, Bortsov AV, Derbyshire ER, Ji RR. Activation of GPR37 in macrophages confers protection against infection-induced sepsis and pain-like behaviour in mice. Nat Commun. 2021 Mar 17;12(1):1704.
  8. Brigham NC, Ji RR, Becker ML. Degradable polymeric vehicles for postoperative pain management. Nat Commun. 2021 Mar 1;12(1):1367.
  9. Wang Z, Jiang C, He Q, Matsuda M, Han Q, Wang K, Bang S, Ding H, Ko MC, Ji RR. Anti-PD-1 treatment impairs opioid antinociception in rodents and nonhuman primates. Sci Transl Med. 2020 Feb 19;12(531).
  10. Suo Y, Wang Z, Zubcevic L, Hsu AL, He Q, Borgnia MJ, Ji RR, Lee SK. Structural insights into electrophile irritant sensing by the human TRPA1 channel. Neuron, 2019, 2020 Mar 4;105(5):882-894.
  11. Ji RR, Donnelly CR, Nedergaard M. Astrocytes in chronic pain and itch. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2019 Nov;20(11):667-685.
  12. Lopez T, Mustafa Z, Chen C, Lee KB, Ramirez A, Benitez C, Luo X, Ji RR, Ge X. Functional selection of protease inhibitory antibodies. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Aug 13;116(33): 16314-16319.
  13. Luo X, Huh Y, Bang S, He Q, Zhang L, Matsuda M, Ji RR. Macrophage Toll-like receptor 9 contributes to chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain in male mice. J Neurosci. 2019 Aug 28;39(35):6848-6864.
  14. Chamessian A, Matsuda M, Young M, Wang M, Zhang ZJ, Liu D, Tobin B, Xu ZZ, Van de Ven T, Ji RR. Is Optogenetic activation of Vglut1-positive Aβ low-threshold mechanoreceptors sufficient to induce tactile allodynia in mice after nerve injury? J Neurosci. 2019 Jul 31;39(31):6202-6215.
  15. Han Q, Liu D, Convertino M, Wang Z, Jiang C, Kim YH, Luo X, Zhang X, Nackley A, Dokholyan NV, Ji RR. miRNA-711 Binds and Activates TRPA1 Extracellularly to Evoke Acute and Chronic Pruritus. Neuron. 2018 Aug 8;99(3):449-463.e6.
  16. Bang S, Xie YK, Zhang ZJ, Wang Z, Xu ZZ, Ji RR. GPR37 regulates macrophage phagocytosis and resolution of inflammatory pain. J Clin Invest. 2018 Aug 1;128(8):3568-3582.
  17. Ji RR, Nackley A, Huh Y, Terrando N, Maixner W. Neuroinflammation and Central Sensitization in Chronic and Widespread Pain. Anesthesiology. 2018 Aug;129(2):343-366.
  18. Stogsdill JA, Ramirez J, Liu D, Kim YH, Baldwin KT, Enustun E, Ejikeme T, Ji RR, Eroglu C. Astrocytic neuroligins control astrocyte morphogenesis and synaptogenesis. Nature. 2017 Nov 8;551(7679):192-197.
  19. Chen G, Kim YH, Li H, Luo H, Liu DL, Zhang ZJ, Lay M, Chang W, Zhang YQ, Ji RR. PD-L1 inhibits acute and chronic pain by suppressing nociceptive neuron activity via PD-1. Nat Neurosci. 2017 Jul;20(7):917-926.
  20. Han Q, Kim YH, Wang X, Liu D, Zhang ZJ, Bey AL, Lay M, Chang W, Berta T, Zhang Y, Jiang YH, Ji RR. SHANK3 deficiency impairs heat hyperalgesia and TRPV1 signaling in primary sensory neurons. Neuron, Dec 21;92(6):1279-1293, 2016
  21. Ji RR, Chamessian A, Zhang YQ. Pain regulation by non-neuronal cells and inflammation. Science, 2016, Nov 4; 354(6312):572-577.
  22. Chen G, Xie RG, Gao YJ, Xu ZZ, Zhao LX, Bang S, Berta T, Park CK, Lay M, Chen W, Ji RR. β-arrestin-2 regulates NMDA receptor function in spinal lamina II neurons and duration of persistent pain. Nat Commun. 2016 Aug 19;7:12531. doi: 10.1038/ncomms12531.
  23. Jiang BC, Cao DL, Zhang X, Zhang ZJ, He LN, Li CH, Zhang WW, Wu XB, Berta T, Ji RR, Gao YJ. CXCL13 drives spinal astrocyte activation and neuropathic pain via CXCR5. J Clin Invest. 2016 Feb;126(2):745-61.
  24. Singh SK, Stogsdill JA, Pulimood NS, Dingsdale H, Kim YH, Pilaz LJ, Kim IH, Manhaes AC, Rodrigues WS Jr, Pamukcu A, Enustun E, Ertuz Z, Scheiffele P, Soderling SH, Silver DL, Ji RR, Medina AE, Eroglu C. Astrocytes Assemble Thalamocortical Synapses by Bridging NRX1α and NL1 via Hevin. Cell 2016 Jan 14;164(1-2):183-96.
  25. Xu ZZ, Kim YH, Bang S, Zhang Y, Berta T, Wang F, Oh SB, Ji RR. Inhibition of mechanical allodynia in neuropathic pain by TLR5-mediated A-fiber blockade. Nature Medicine. 2015 21(11):1326-3.
  26. Taves S, Berta T, Liu DL, Gan S, Chen G, Kim YH, Van de Ven T, Laufer S, Ji RR. Spinal inhibition of p38 MAP kinase reduces inflammatory and neuropathic pain in male but not female mice: Sex-dependent microglial signaling in the spinal cord. Brain Behav Immun. 2015 Oct 19. pii: S0889-1591(15)30032-5.
  27. Chen G, Park CK, Xie RG, Ji RR. Intrathecal bone marrow stromal cells inhibit neuropathic pain via TGF-b secretion. J Clin Invest. 2015;125(8):3226-40.
  28. Sorge RE, Mapplebeck JCS, Rosen S, Beggs S, Taves S, Alexander JK, Martin LJ, Austin JS, Sotocinal SG, Chen D,  Yang M, Shi XQ, Huang H, Pillon NJ, Bilan PJ, Tu Y, Klip A, Ji RR, Zhang J, Michael W Salter MS,  Mogil JS. Different immune cells mediate mechanical pain hypersensitivity in male and female mice. 2015, Nat Neurosci, 2015 Aug;18(8):1081-3.
  29. Ji RR, Xu ZZ, Gao YJ. Neuroinflammation drives chronic pain: emerging targets with pro- and anti-inflammatory roles. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, 2014, 13:533-548.
  30. Chen G, Park CK, Xie RG, Nedergaard M, Ji RR (2014) Connexin-43 induces chemokine release from spinal cord astrocytes to maintain late-phase neuropathic pain in mice. Brain, 2014, 137:2193-2209.
  31. Park CK, Xu ZZ, Berta, T, Han QJ, Liu XJ, Ji RR (2014)  Extracellular miRNAs activate nociceptor neurons to elicit pain via TLR7 and TRPA1. Neuron, 82:47-54.
  32. Berta T, Park CK, Xie RG, Xu ZZ, Lu N, Ji RR (2014)  Extracellular caspase-6 drives murine inflammatory pain via microglia TNF-a secretion. J Clin Invest. 2014; 124:1173-86.
  33. Ji RR, Berta T, and Nedergaard M. Glia and pain: Is chronic pain and gliopathy? Pain, 2013, 154 Suppl 1: S10-28.
  34. Lu Y, Dong H, Gao Y, Gong Y, Ren Y, Gu N, Zhou S, Xia N, Sun YY, Ji RR, Xiong L. A feed-forward spinal cord glycinergic neural circuit gates mechanical allodynia. J Clin Invest. 2013, 123:4050-62.
  35. Liu T, Berta T, Xu ZZ, Park CK, Zhang L, Lü N, Liu Q, Liu Y, Gao YJ, Liu YC, Ma Q, Dong X, Ji RR. TLR3 deficiency impairs spinal cord synaptic transmission, central sensitization, and pruritus in mice. J Clin Invest. 2012, 122:2195-2207.

Lab Techniques Photos

Inflammation and Pain
Nociceptor interactions with non-neuronal cells
Neuron-glial interactions in the spinal cord
Activation of spinal microglia after nerve injury
p38 activation in spinal microglia after nerve injury
Astrocytes in neuropathic pain
Long-term survival of intrathecally injected bone marrow stem (stromal) cells in DRGS
Distinct activation of TRPA1 for itch and pain
miR-711 binds TRPA1 extracellularly
Fish oil-derived resolvin is a potent pain inhibitor
NPD1 induces Ca2+ signaling and phagocytosis via GPR37 in macrophages
PD1 immune therapy and pain
TR signaling in primary sensory neurons