As the discs in the spine degenerate, cells are lost and the ability to produce water-binding molecules called proteoglycans is decreased, according to Irving Shapiro, Ph.D., at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University. The water absorbs forces on the spine, essentially serving as shock absorbers. Losing proteoglycans can result in damage to the disc, and sometimes, pain. The researchers asked if it was possible to regenerate proteoglycans using adult stem cells. Federal regulations prevent them from using embryonic stem cells.

Makarand Risbud, Ph.D. of Jefferson Medical College built the study around the observation that while the tissue that he could isolate from the disc was no longer binding water, the tissue still might contain dormant stem cells. He thought that while these cells were no longer functioning to repair the damaged disc, under appropriate conditions, they could be activated.

To explore that possibility, he isolated cells from discarded disc tissue that still had the capacity to proliferate. Risbud notes that under certain conditions, the cells could be encouraged to form bone. In other conditions, the cells would form cartilage or even fat. The tests proved that these cells were indeed dormant disc stem cells. “If we are able to stimulate the ‘silent’ cells in the patient, then it may be possible to repair the ravages of degenerative disc disease without undergoing invasive surgical procedures that may limit the motion of the spine,” he says.

Many people suffer from lower back pain, and treatment ranges from painkillers such as acetominophen to medical procedures, such as fusing vertebrae. The combined annual costs for treatment of back pain and disc disease is approximately $100 billion a year and a major cause of lost work in the United States.; Source: Thomas Jefferson University