Your aching back might get some relief if a new biomaterial from Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering succeeds in its intention. In a study, graduate student Aubrey Francisco and biomedical engineering professor Lori Setton describe a material designed to deliver a booster shot of reparative cells to the nucleus pulposus (NP), the jelly-like cushion found between spinal discs. The NP is important: It distributes pressure and provides spine mobility, which helps to relieve back pain.
Unfortunately, as we age, the soft discs that act as the spine’s shock absorbers break down, particularly near the neck and lower back. That can lead to even more painful conditions, such as herniated discs, osteoarthritis, or spinal narrowing. Tackling the problem has involved cell therapies, but keeping the cells alive involves synthesizing the right replacement material and getting it to the right place. Research has shown that re-implanting NP cells can delay disc degeneration, and while several companies offer cell-delivery systems, they’ve been ineffective. “They allow the cells to quickly migrate out of and away from the injection site,” Francisco says.
Enter Francisco and Setton’s strategy: an injectable gel mix of encased therapeutic cells that solidifies between the targeted spinal discs. The researchers’ preliminary results on rats showed that more than two weeks after the injection, significantly more cells remained in place when delivered within the biomaterial carrier compared to non-encased cells delivered in a liquid suspension, which are more likely to leak away from the targeted site.