Leaders in Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery

Regenerative Medicine for Spine Conditions

The ability to use the body’s own tissue to help heal itself has a lot of potential.

YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD the statistics: As many as half of adults in the U.S. suffer from back painin any given  given time frame. What’s even more interesting is that these back pain facts and figures likely aren’t shocking to you. Like most of us, you’ve probably had your own struggles with back pain. And the financial implications are also staggering, with back pain ranking high on the list of reasons people in the United States are disabled – to the estimated tune of nearly $2 billion every year. For a great many of us, the occasional bout with back pain will subside on its own without significant intervention. But there are some who will experience chronic pain as the result of an underlying condition that needs to be diagnosed and effectively treated to help relieve the pain and other symptoms.[

Today, there are many treatments available for back pain. And for those who are suffering the disabling grips of pain caused by a problem with one or more spinal discs, there may be even better news. Researchers recently released the results of a study on the regeneration of healthy spinal discs using the subject’s own stem cells. Though the subjects, in this case, were goats (because their cervical spinal disc shape is about the same size as in humans), there’s reason to be optimistic about the promise of regenerative medicine options for people with spinal conditions.

When someone is experiencing back pain due to disc degeneration, there have historically been one of two treatments employed to fix it. In one of them, the damaged disc is removed, and the vertebrae above and below it are fused together to limit any friction or movement that is resulting in pain. Though spinal fusion surgery can be extremely effective in many cases and can also be performed using a minimally-invasive approach, thereby reducing risks and complications, it isn’t perfect for every patient. The spine is like a row of dominoes: The health of one part of it can have a cascading effect on the other parts. So when one area of the spine is altered, it can result in changes to other parts, especially if those other parts are also beginning to wear out or become damaged. The result can be more damage and more back pain – two things we definitely don’t want more of.[ 

Another treatment for damaged spinal discs that are causing back pain involves a replacement of the damaged disc with one that is “artificial,” usually composed of metal or plastic or a combination of both. Again, while this procedure can also be performed in a minimally-invasive style nd has proven efficacious for many patients, it isn’t perfect. Sometimes, implants can “wear out” over time and ultimately need to be replaced.

According to the National Institutes of Health, “Regenerative medicine is the process of creating living, functional tissues to repair or replace tissue or organ function lost due to age, disease, damage or congenital defects.” In the case of spinal disc conditions, regenerative medicine aims to address some of the shortcomings in the current treatment options that are available. In recent experiments, the researchers devised a way to extract the stem cell material from the goat subjects and to use it to grow new tissue that looks and behaves like a spinal disc. Once the engineering of that disc was complete, it was implanted back into the goat’s spine, and the tissue became part of the goat’s own anatomy. Upon studying the goat subjects at eight to 12 weeks post-procedure, the researchers found that the disc material had maintained (and in some cases improved) its shape, and the function of the disc either matched or exceeded expectations.[ 

Although the technique used on the goat subjects must continue to be rigorously studied and analyzed and is still likely a ways off for humans, there is excellent medical promise here. Science and medicine are always trying to address the ways that the body breaks down and how we can best get patients back to living the active lives they love, free from pain – with fewer risks, complications and downtime. With the promise of studies like this one, we’re making even more significant strides.

Neel Anand, M.D., Contributor

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