Scientist Helena Barreto-Henriksson is a researcher at the Institute of Clinical Sciences and the Institute of Biomedicine at the Sahlgrenska Academy (University of Gothenberg.)
She has written up a report in Cells, Tissues and Organs, [November 2010], detailing her recent experiments in which she injected human stem cells into a damaged animal’s intervertebral discs. The cells had the effect of partially repairing the degenerated cartilage.
Since millions of people suffer back pain because of unrepairable worn and damaged discs, the findings are potentially good news for people with chronic back problems.
Cells in degenerated intervertebral discs are made of cartilage which no longer works effectively to cushion the discs above and below them. Without the cushioning effect, sufferers are prone to experience pain.
Barreto-Henriksson says that “it is generally believed that cartilage has no, or very little, capacity to heal. Knowledge about how cell division takes place in intervertebral discs is limited.”
Her report, however, describes the possibility of repairing discs through cell transplantation. In animal studies and studies of human discs removed during surgery, her team identified areas in discs where the cells have properties similar to those of stem cells. These cells are thought to stimulate growth of new cells, giving the discs some capacity to regenerate. When they were transplanted into the cartilage of human damaged discs, the cells survived and, Barreto-Henriksson says, “there was a certain degree of healing in the disc”.
The results hold out the hope that it may become possible to repair intervertebral discs using biological treatments. One possibility would be to stimulate the existing stem cells in damaged discs. Another would be to inject a patient’s own stem cells, from bone marrow, into a damaged disc.
Disc degeneration is a common, painful and often chronic medical problem. Once intervertebral discs become thin and dry they are unable to serve their function between the vertebrae. Older people are particularly prone to the problem which may lead to displacement of a vertebra and pinching of the spinal cord (spinal stenosis.) Younger people and the middle-aged are by no means immune to the problem, however, and like older patients they can suffer significant or severe lower back pain and different degrees of disability depending on its severity.
Treatment is currently by painkillers, rest and or surgical intervention. Stem cell therapy, if it can be made to stimulate cartilage repair, offers the potential to cure this chronic problem without drugs or invasive surgical procedures.