Treating Spinal Pain with Replacement Discs Made of ‘Engineered Living Tissue’ Moves Closer to Reality

Robert Mauck

Robert Mauck, the Mary Black Ralston Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Perelman School of Medicine and Director of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory, is also a professor in Engineering’s Department of Bioengineering.

He, along with colleagues at Penn Medicine and Penn Vet, have recently published a paper in the journal Science Translational Medicine that details a prospective tissue engineering approach to treating intervertebral disc degeneration. Though the study was done on animal models, it shows how these cushioning discs in between vertebrae might one day be replaced with synthetic versions seeded with a patient’s own mesenchymal stem cells.

For the first time, bioengineered spinal discs were successfully implanted and provided long-term function in the largest animal model ever evaluated for tissue-engineered disc replacement. A new Penn Medicine study published in Science Translational Medicine provides compelling translational evidence that the cells of patients suffering from neck and back pain could be used to build a new spinal disc in the lab to replace a deteriorated one. The study, which was performed using goats, was conducted by a multidisciplinary team in the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, School of Engineering and Applied Science, and School of Veterinary Medicine.
The soft tissues in the spinal column, the intervertebral discs, are essential for the motions of daily life, such as turning your head to tying your shoes. At any given time, however, about half the adult population in the United States is suffering from back or neck pain, for which treatment and care place a significant economic burden on society — an estimated $195 billion a year. While spinal disc degeneration is often associated with that pain, the underlying causes of disc degeneration remain less understood. Today’s approaches, which include spinal fusion surgery and mechanical replacement devices, provide symptomatic relief, but they do not restore native disc structure, function, and range of motion, and they often have limited long-term efficacy. Thus, there is a need for new therapies.
Tissue engineering holds great promise. It involves combining the patients’ or animals’ own stems cells with biomaterial scaffolds in the lab to generate a composite structure that is then implanted into the spine to act as a replacement disc. For the last 15 years, the Penn research team has been developing a tissue engineered replacement disc, moving from in vitro basic science endeavors to small animal models to larger animal models with an eye towards human trials.

Continue reading at Penn Medicine News.