Researchers may have found a way to press pause on spinal disc injuries, giving doctors more time to treat them before worse issues develop. The Penn Medicine-led team discovered that cells in the outer region of spinal discs become stressed and kick off a subpar healing process after injuries, which researchers then found can temporarily be blocked with drugs that calm the cells down. This study, conducted using specially engineered biomaterials and small animal models, was published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.
“This work sheds light on some of the challenges we are going to face in slowing disc degeneration and preventing back pain,” says Edward Bonnevie, a postdoctoral fellow in Penn Medicine’s McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory. “Most spine research focuses on the inner part of the disc, but our work highlights the fact that we need to treat the whole disc, and we believe doing so may lead to the identification of new targets for therapy.”
Discs in the spine are pressurized and structured similarly to water balloons, with water-attracting proteins in the inner portion restrained by an outer layer of fibrous tissue containing cells that are under a constant stretch. The discs are designed to cushion the vertebrae from directly and painfully contacting each other. Bonnevie, senior author Robert L. Mauck, a professor of orthopaedic surgery and director of the McKay Lab, and their fellow researchers decided to focus their research on the often overlooked outer region of the discs.
“We know that cells in the inner region undergo changes as a result of disc injury and degeneration, and researchers have tried to restore function to those cells,” Bonnevie says. “But you can think of that like trying to fill up a water balloon that already has holes—it isn’t a viable treatment option by itself.”
Read more at Penn Medicine News.