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Bioengineered Spinal Disc Could Relieve Back Pain

Existing surgical treatments lack flexibility

Researchers at Cornell University in New York have developed an artificial spinal disc that may help patients with chronic back pain and other disc problems.

The spine is a column of bones alternating with flexible spinal discs. When those discs do their job properly, you feel great. But when the disc is injured, the result can be pain in the neck or lower back.

Now, a research team led by a neurosurgeon and a biomedical engineer has developed an artificial spinal disk that seems to work well in experiments using laboratory animals.

Current treatments include a metal and plastic artificial disk and spinal fusion surgery, but they don't really duplicate the structure of the natural spinal disk. Cornell University neurosurgeon Roger Härtl says the disc has a gel-like interior surrounded by a stiffer outer section, which gives it a valuable combination of properties.

"That structure together - the disc, made up of the annulus on the outside and the nucleus inside - is a very stable structure, Härtl says. "However, it provides a certain amount of motion. That's why our spine is so incredibly flexible, if you look at the whole spine."

Härtl's engineering colleague, Lawrence Bonassar developed the artificial discs, which are grown from cells, not manufactured, and Härtl says they perform very much like the natural discs they replace.

"So the engineering team have been able to replicate the normal structure of the disc, and we think that the combination of those two components - namely the nucleus and the annulus together - mimics to a very, very high degree what the normal spinal disc looks like and goes through in the human anatomy."

These artificial discs were implanted in the tails of laboratory rats, where they performed much like natural discs.

The researchers say bioengineered discs could represent a major advance for many patients with disc problems.