Stem Cell Repair and Back Problems
For the estimated 10 million Britons suffering from lower back pain every year, news of a potential permanent cure could bring hope for a pain-free future. Researchers at Manchester University’s Division of Regenerative Medicine are currently running clinical trials in people with back pain to test a revolutionary treatment that could repair damaged intervertebral discs. The treatment uses stem cells (the master cells from which all the body’s specialist cells are created) taken from the sufferer’s own bone marrow to repair the damage.
Off Work and in the Waiting RoomLower back pain is a common problem in the United Kingdom and worldwide, and it is estimated that 80% of adults in the UK will suffer back pain at least once at some point in their life. In fact, one in five people will visit their doctor in any given year because of back pain from a range of different causes. Around 4.9 million work days are lost through back-related pain every year and treatments for back problems, including pain killers, physiotherapy and surgery, cost the NHS around £481 million a year. Added to this is the cost of over-the-counter remedies and alternative treatments. This is a huge amount of money for treatments that, as back pain sufferers will know, usually only tackle the symptoms and provide temporary relief from what can often be crippling pain that disrupts work, social and family life.
Cause and EffectThe spine is very complex. It is made up of 24 small bones called the vertebrae. In between each pair of vertebrae lies an intervertebral disc. These spongy discs act as shock absorbers and allow the spine to be flexible. Structured a bit like small round cushions, the discs have a flexible and strong outer layer called the annulus fibrosus and a squashy interior gel called the nucleus polposus. When a disc is damaged, by trauma, disease or just ongoing wear-and-tear, the annulus fibrosus may split allowing some or all of the gel to squeeze out (often called a slipped, herniated or ruptured disc). The resulting pain and disability can be short-lived (acute) or long term (chronic). As intervertebral discs cannot repair themselves, an acute back problem can often become a chronic one when it is not possible to tackle the cause of the problem.
A Complete Cure?The revolutionary new treatment based on stem cells, pioneered by Dr Stephen Richardson at Manchester University, may turn out to offer a permanent cure for back pain related to damaged intervertebral discs. For over five years, and backed with funding from the Arthritis Research Campaign, he and his colleagues at the Division of Regenerative Medicine have been developing a way of using cells from the body to regenerate the nucleus polposus in the damaged intervertebral discs. The treatment involves taking mesenchymal cells, a type of stem cell, from the sufferer’s own bone marrow and growing them in a culture. Using a patented method of differentiation (when an unspecialised cell becomes specialised) the mesenchymal cells can develop into nucleus polposus cells. These new specialist cells are then embedded into a completely natural collagen gel, specially developed for the purpose by the German biotechnology company, Arthrokinetics. Using an arthroscope – a tube through which a camera and surgical instruments can be inserted – the gel containing the new cells is inserted between the affected vertebrae where the cells can then grow and multiply, creating a new nucleus polposus.
This breakthrough treatment is exciting for back pain sufferers, where the pain is caused by damaged intervertebral discs. The cure could well be permanent, allowing a return to a pain-free life. Because this form of surgery causes minimal damage to the skin and other tissues, recovery can be very quick with the chance of going home on the same or the next day. Surgery that uses implants often causes concern because there is a risk that the implant could be rejected by the body’s immune system. In this case, though, the cells are taken from the sufferers own body and so are instantly recognised and accepted. The same goes for the completely natural collagen gel.