Back pain is a very common complaint and a major reason many people miss work. It is arguably also a reason for the very widespread use of pain killers, including narcotics.
A multidisciplinary research team is now working to develop bioengineered spinal discs from a person’s own stem cells, according to a report by Medical News Daily.
Back pain is typically the result of degeneration or wear and tear affecting the spinal discs. These structures that separate bones making up your vertebral column help to absorb stress that the spine has to handle when walking or remaining in an upright position.
A person experiences back pain, and possibly neck pain, as the discs become damaged or wear out. The discomfort results from a reduced ability to absorb shock and stress.
Standard treatments of back pain include pain relievers, which basically are more about treating the symptoms.
Surgical procedures are currently considered the best options for combating this problem. The options include spinal fusion surgery and procedures done to replace intervertebral discs affected with artificial ones.
A major issue is that the use of non-natural materials to correct this problem cannot guarantee a complete function.
This is a reason why research by a team from the University of Pennsylvania is interesting. The researchers are working on the use of bioengineered discs fashioned from a patient’s own stem cells to correct the problem.
Fighting back with own cells
Much has been said about stem cells offering a revolutionary means of tackling a variety of disorders. It is obviously this same observed ability that influenced the present work.
Stem cells are cells in the body that are yet to differentiate. This means they can become specialized cells in whatever part of the body they are introduced to.
The team involved in the current research did not start just recently. It has been working on models involving bioengineered discs for the past 15 years and the results so far have been encouraging.
“The current standard of care does not actually restore the disc,” says Prof. Robert L. Mauck, a lead author, “so our hope with this engineered device is to replace it in a biological and functional way and to be able to regain full range of motion.”
The researchers started with laboratory studies before moving to studies involving small animals. They began working on large animal studies more recently.
The multidisciplinary research team comprises members from UPenn’s Perelman School of Medicine, School of Engineering and Applied Science, and School of Veterinary Medicine.
A promising approach
Evidence from animal studies so far suggests that this technique might just be the next big thing for back pain treatment.
In earlier studies, the researchers tested the bioengineered discs, which they named “disc-like angle ply structures” (DAPS), in the tails of rats for a period of five weeks.
They increased the duration up to 20 weeks in a new study, the results of which were published in the Science Translational Medicine. This time, they assess the improved disc model called “endplate-modified DAPS” (eDAPS) in rats.
Multiple tests showed that the newer model did a better job of restoring disc structure and function. It displayed an improved ability to maintain its shape and to integrate more easily with neighboring tissue.
Based on the encouraging findings, the researchers went further to test eDAPS on the cervical spines of some goats. This was due to the similarity in dimensions to the ones in humans.
The results of this investigation also gave room for optimism about this potential treatment for back pain.
The eDAPS were also observed to integrate impressively well with the surrounding tissue. Their mechanical function was comparable to those of the original cervical spines of the animals. It was even better in some cases.
The researchers revealed their next plan of action was to carry out more in-depth investigations involving the use of goats to know more about how the bioengineered discs work.
There are also plans to test them in models of intervertebral disc degeneration in humans. This will hopefully lead to clinical human trials, which may result in a ground-breaking treatment for back pain.
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