One of the most common causes of back pain is damage to the discs that lie between the vertebrae of our spine. Though they’ve evolved to withstand all types of stress and pressure, they’re not indestructible, and when they slip out of place, herniate or deteriorate with age, it leads to pressure on spinal nerves and spinal bones coming into contact with one another, leading to remarkable pain. There are several procedures available to address this issue, including minimally invasive microdiscectomy and spinal fusions, and now a group of biomedical engineers from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has come up with a truly innovative solution: replacing damaged discs with new ones made up in part from the patient’s own cells.
According to the Penn scientists, there have already been replacement discs created out of synthetic materials. Though these provide more flexibility than spinal fusion does, they have had mixed results when implanted in patients. Though they may relieve pain, they do not provide the same range-of-motion as the patient’s original cartilage did, and they have broken down relatively quickly, and in some cases the material that they are made of triggers an immune response that leads to even more pain for the patient. In response, the Penn team has come up with a different type of replacement disc, made of a combination of biodegradable materials and a high-tech polymer that they seed with the patient’s own living stem cells. By combining these materials the researchers have created a living tissue that they then allow to grow within a ladder-like structure until it forms a replacement disc that has a texture that is much more like the vertebral discs that we are born with.
The notion of growing new, more natural discs generated from the patient’s own cells represents a breakthrough, and animal testing that has been conducted so far has proven highly successful. The engineers first applied their testing to rats, implanting rodent-sized discs sourced from the animals’ stem cells and seeing how long they would last. Following encouraging responses with the rats, they have now moved on to goats’ necks. They found that over a two-month period, goats who had the biosynthetic discs implanted displayed a completely normal range of motion, and when subjected to a variety of compression stresses they performed in the same way that natural discs did. The researchers plan on continuing these studies on rabbits, while a researcher from Cornell University is running similar tests of biosynthetic replacement discs on dogs.
Though we are a long way off from being able to test the same type of replacement discs on human subjects, or from getting them approved by the FDA for widespread use on back pain and back injury patients, the news of this new creation remains extremely promising.
If you are searching for relief from back pain, our spine specialty practice in New Jersey has numerous options that can work for you. Contact us today to set up a time for examination and consultation.