Lab technique may help repair damages from degenerative disc disease

Oct 13 2011
Scientists at McGill University have developed a technique that may lead to new treatments for degenerative disc disease. The system creates a model on which researchers can experiment as they look for a way to rejuvenate damaged discs.

In between the vertebrae that protect the spinal cord are gel-filled cushions called discs, which help stabilize the movement of the spine. Degenerative disc disease occurs when these discs are damaged as a result of injury, disease or age-related degradation. These structures can bulge out or rupture and put pressure on the surrounding nerves, which may lead to back pain that can radiate to other parts of the body. Over time, discs can also become thin and rigid, making movement more difficult and painful. Habits such as smoking can accelerate this aging process for discs.

The progression of degenerative disc disease can slow down with the help of physical therapy to adjust one's movement and strengthen the muscles. There are also conservative treatments that can help deal with the pain, including acupuncture, massage therapy and medication.

However, there are some instances when back pain is so great that surgery is needed. A discectomy removes part or all of a herniated disc in order to take pressure off the surrounding nerves. This kind of procedure is sometimes followed by spinal fusion, which stabilizes the spine by connecting the two vertebrae on either side of the excised disc. Fusion can be done with the help of a bone graft, taken from another part of the patient's body or a donor cadaver, as well as certain bone proteins or special cages made from rods and screws.

There is no real way to cure degenerative disc disease. However, researchers at McGill University believe they may actually be able to reverse the early stages of this condition. The team of scientists experimented on human discs they isolated for their research by placing them in a special culture dish that allowed the disc to stay alive for weeks.

A system like this opens the door for scientists to study new treatments for degenerative disc disease by giving them a live model to work with, as published in the Oct. 15 issue of Spine.