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A multidisciplinary research team from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, School of Engineering and Applied Science, and School of Veterinary Medicine is aiming to solve back pain by developing bioengineered intervertebral discs made out of an individual’s own stem cells.

The researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have been working for the past 15 years on bioengineered disc models – first in laboratory studies, then in small animal studies, and most recently in large animal studies.

The current standard of care does not actually restore the disc, so the  hope with this engineered device is to replace it in a biological, functional way and regain full range of motion.

Previously, the researchers tested the new discs – called “disc-like angle ply structures” (DAPS) – in rat tails for 5 weeks. In the new study, whose results appear in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the team developed the engineered discs even further. They then tested the new model – called ” endplate-modified DAPS” (eDAPS) – in rats again, but this time for up to 20 weeks.

Following several tests – MRI scans and several in-depth tissue and mechanical analyses – the researchers found that, in the rat model, eDAPS effectively restored original disc structure and function.

This initial success motivated the research team to study eDAPS in goats, and they implanted the device into the cervical spines of some of the animals. The scientists chose to work with goats because, as they explain, the cervical spinal discs of goats have similar dimensions to those of humans. Moreover, goats have semi-upright stature, allowing the researchers to bring their study one step closer to human trials.

The researchers’ tests on goats were also successful. They noticed that the eDAPS integrated well with the surrounding tissue, and the mechanic function of the discs at least matched, if not surpassed, that of the original cervical discs of the goats.

The researchers say that the next step will include conducting further, more extensive trials in goats, which will allow the scientists to understand better how well eDAPS works.

Moreover, the research team plans to test out eDAPS in models of human intervertebral disc degeneration, thus hopefully getting one step closer to clinical trials.

The researchers say it would be a paradigm shift for how we really treat these spinal diseases and how to approach motion sparing reconstruction of joints.