Stem cell research may augment spine surgery in the future

Oct 14 2011
As scientific discovery continues to find medical approaches for various ailments afflicting the spine, stem cell research is emerging as a promising field in which to find treatments to augment spine surgery.

"I think stem cells will make a big impact on spine care," said Hyun Bae, M.D., co-director of the spine fellowship program and director of education at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles, as reported in Becker's Orthopedic, Spine & Pain Management. "I don't think this is some mythical soundscape that won't work. I think in the next 10 years, stem cells will make a significant impact on our medical field."

Back pain is the most common neurological ailment affecting Americans, second only to headaches. It is a leading cause of disability and lost wages through time taken off work, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The spinal column consists of the vertebrae, the facet joints and the intervertebral discs that act as shock absorbers and enhance movement in the spine. Back pain is the result of disease, injury or age-related degeneration to any of these structures, as well as any surrounding muscles and ligaments.

In the beginning, it is best to approach back pain using conservative means, such as medication, acupuncture, massage, physical therapy or chiropractic medicine. However, some cases of back pain are so severe that they require surgical treatment.

Researchers are finding different ways to improve the outcomes of spine surgery. While some are creating surgical techniques that are minimally invasive, others like Bae are looking at stem cells as a possibility.

Stem cells are special because they have the ability to divide and generate more than one kind of cell. This principle is central to the field of regenerative medicine, which is an approach that uses stem cells to help replace damaged or diseased tissue.

There are three kinds of stem cells. Embryonic stem cells can generate any kind of tissue in the human body, but are considered controversial due to ethical debates about how they are harvested. Adult stem cells come from different organ systems of the body, such as the brain or bone marrow. They can generate different kinds of cells related to the system from which they came, but not any other type. Induced pluripotent cells are regular adult cells that are reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells.

Scientists like Bae are testing potential uses of stem cells in treating conditions of the spine. For example, one clinical trial is injecting stem cells into intervertebral discs damaged from degenerative disc disease in order to see if they can rejuvenate the structure and heal back pain. Another trial in animal models uses bone proteins derived from stem cells for surgery to treat spine fractures. This may lead to a new approach to the bone-wasting disease osteoporosis.

As exciting as stem cell research is, a lot of it still needs to go through proper clinical trials in order to make sure they are both safe and effective.