Spinal Discs Grown From Cells Could Someday Repair Bad Backs

By Joseph Castro | August 3, 2011 4:04 pm

spacing is importantLeft: normal rat disc. Right: engineered disc.

What’s the News: Researchers at Cornell University have now bio-engineered synthetic spinal discs and implanted them in rats. The implants provide as much spinal cushioning as authentic discs do, and improve with age by growing new cells and binding to nearby vertebrae, according to the study recently published in the journal PNAS. The research could someday help people with chronic lower back and neck pain from conditions like degenerative disc disease.

What’s the Context:

  • In your spine, intervertebral discs provide cushioning between individual vertebrae. But when those discs start to tear or rupture from age or injuries, it can put you in a lot of pain, often requiring medications and physical therapy. In more extreme cases, surgeons sometimes remove the diseased disc(s) and fuse the remaining vertebrae together; this severely hampers back flexibility.
  • In the past few years, surgeons have also started offering intervertebral disc arthroplasty, which involves replacing degenerated discs with metal or plastic replicas. This procedure has an inherent issue: the artificial discs wear down over time. Organic artificial discs may not have this issue.
  • This idea of trading ailing body parts for lab-grown replacements is certainly not new. Recently, scientists and surgeons transplanted the world’s first synthetic organ,  a trachea, which they created partly out of a man’s own stem cells.

How the Heck:

  • In the current study, researchers led by biomedical engineer Lawrence Bonassar fashioned artificial, disc-shaped scaffolds out of collagen, and injected a gel called alginate into the centers. They added cells from sheep discs, and let the cells grow over the scaffolds. The researchers used sheep cells instead of rat cells because sheep discs are much larger, allowing the team to make many implants from a single set of discs and reduce variability in the study, Bonassar said in an email.
  • The researchers implanted the bio-discs into the spines of immune-deficient rats, just under the tail. After six months, the scientists found that the implanted discs showed no signs of wear. Moreover, using MRI and CT scans, they saw that the cells from the implants had started growing into the rest of the rats’ spines, just as cells in a normal disc would.

Not So Fast:

  • The concept is still a long way off from being used in humans. One challenge for human transplants will be finding a way to prevent the immune system from rejecting the new discs. But it remains to be seen how big of an issue this will be: since spinal discs don’t have blood vessels, it doesn’t have white blood cells to attack the foreign discs, making it less likely for the body to reject the transplants.
  • Dr. Douglas Orr points out that rat tails don’t bear weight the same way that human spines do, leaving unanswered the question of whether the engineered discs will fulfill that need (via HealthDay).

The Future Holds: The researchers are working on making human-sized discs using human cells. Bonassar says that they may be able to make implants using cadaveric disc cells or adult stem cells from bone marrow.

[via ScienceNOW]

Image courtesy of Bowles et al, PNAS

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
  • Dick Fritz

    The last “Discorery Magazine” had an articel on regenerating tissue using pig scaffeling and the body fills it in using its own Stem cells. Neat reading.

  • Brian

    Come on, they have already replaced a human esophagus with no rejection problem, but have to reinvent the wheel for a spinal disk? It is also being done with dog hips, animal bladders, horse legs, achilles tendons, heart valves, etc., with no inflammation or rejection and yet it’s still a long way off for humans …. nice. Something smells fishy, and it smells like something to do with money.

  • Chris

    i have 2 herniated discs in my back and it is articles like this that give me hope

  • Jaclyn

    I am 22 years old and have 3 ruptured discs. I have had this since i was 15 and its unbearable!! I am keeping my hopes up that someday soon, someone can use stem cell and fix my back. I cant do anything anymore! I just started an engineering job and am having trouble concentrating. I cant exercise or do anything I wish I could. I dream of the day I can go running again! Its so depressing to have to deal with this every day at my age. :( I wish someone could help me!

  • Agustin

    Im from argentina, 28, and lived in israel some years until i herniated some discs and came back to my country.Jacklin, i tottaly feel what u are telling us, my life is fkin over since i damaged my discs. i cant start explaining how much shitty this situation is and i need help also, i fkin pray to everything and everyone for this stem cell therapies succes. they got to make it work, this implant thing or the stem cells shot in the back they are in, not sure where, but i herd of it.

  • Herbert Eusebio

    I’m from the Philippines and it is available already,made inquiries regarding stem cell therapy, it cost 12,500 usd…Kinda hesitant since all they say it is on at its experimental stage…howcome it is already been practiced in some countries and very expensive treatment..it is so frustrating becuase we have the cure, however, still cannnot do the procedure due to lack of money..

  • maya

    i am maya from india.i havebulged disc l5s1.i want to do stem cell therapy.i dont have money

  • eric

    sadly its 100% all about the money period and the hospitals and doctors getting paid billions of dollars each year at our expense.
    otherwise with today’s technology surely a very common problem for many millions of disc sufferers would have been simply not a surgery that was almost same just as about 100 years ago,
    such as a common fusion surgery with a great deal of many vast problems thereafter for life,
    and many similar other repairs for a very common problem of the back, neck, and spine overall for us all suffering today…
    but then it will surely hit home for sure for them all and their family as well as its so very common for us all.
    the only problem is that those of us who actually prevent or do not disclose the new or modern techniques and procedures or stem cell therapy are definitely one day or already candidates for the very same problem of the herniated disc procedures themselves too as we all are, with various common herniated disc problems.
    such a common problem worldwide for so many, and no easy fix yet today, come on please.

  • Paul

    I am 51 and have ruptured disks L-3, 4 and 5. Have a disabled wife and my mother still to take care of. I would love to be able to do what I need to do but can’t and that sucks. How soon is some day?


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