Bioengineered spinal disc implants to combat back pain


August 1, 2011

Researchers have created a biologically based spinal implant they say could someday provide relief for the millions of people suffering lower back and neck pain (Image: illuminator999 via Flickr)

Researchers have created a biologically based spinal implant they say could someday provide relief for the millions of people suffering lower back and neck pain (Image: illuminator999 via Flickr)

Researchers have created a biologically based spinal implant they say could someday provide relief for the millions of people suffering lower back and neck pain. Instead of removing damaged spinal discs - a surgery known as a discectomy - and fusing the vertebrate bones to stabilize the spine in patients diagnosed with severe degenerative disc disease, or herniated discs, the artificial discs could be used to replace damaged discs, performing better than current implants that are made from a combination of metal and plastic.

Although discectomies prevent pain, the often limit mobility. Human discs look something like a tire, with the outer part, called the annulus, made of a stiff material, and the inner circle, the nucleus, made of a gel-like substance that gets pressurized and bears weight.

To mimic this structure, engineers at Cornell University in Ithaca and doctors at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City engineered artificial discs out of two polymers - collagen, which wraps around the outside, and a hydrogel called alginate in the middle. They seeded the implants with cells that repopulate the structures with new tissue. Compared to artificial implants that degrade over time, the researchers found that the new implants get better as they mature in the body, due to the growth of the cells.

"Our implants have maintained 70 to 80 percent of initial disc height. In fact, the mechanical properties get better with time," says Lawrence Bonassar, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering at Cornell.

A surgical procedure approved by the FDA in 2005 for treating the degeneration of the intervertebral disc involves removing the damaged disc completely and replacing it with an implant made from a combination of metal and plastic, with the aim of mimicking the normal movement of the lumbar and the spine.

"Bone or metal or plastic implants are complicated structures which come with a mechanical risk of the structures moving around, or debris from the metal or plastic particles accumulating in the body from wear and tear," says Roger Härtl, M.D., associate professor of neurosurgery at Weill Cornell Medical College and chief of spinal surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Because the new discs integrate and mature with the vertebrae they would have a huge advantage over traditional implants, says Härtl, who is also the neurosurgeon for the New York Giants. This major surgery would also become less invasive, safer and come with fewer long-term side effects, he adds.

Bonassar and Härtl began collaborating on the project in 2006 and have since moved into the animal testing stages. The project has received a US$325,000 grant from Switzerland's AO Spine foundation and $100,000 in support from NFL charities. The research appears online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick



im curious, how does this picture represent this article, other than to demonstrate spinal flexability? Did this person actually get the implant?

Raymond Johnson

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE I will be a guinea pig for a new disc (actually several of them!)

Lora Hubbel

VIVISECTION is involved in this. A resounding \"NO\" to the ABUSE OF OUR ANIMAL KIN. Let the scientists investigate how lower back pain can be prevented and treated without abusing our fellow animals. Any of us with back/neck pain needs to follow a healthy vegan diet, lose weight if necessary, exercise, do yoga stretches, explore options such as postural techniques, the Alexander technique, chiropractic, osteopathy, hydrotherapy, etc etc. Vivisection on innocent sentient beings, who suffer pain and terror just as humans do, is an abomination. Thankfully, there is a rapidly-growing movement against it.

Katia Luto

@ Katia, I am sorry, I am torn also, too many people just eat them, if they can help this condition, I am willing to let it go, I suffered a l3 l4 injury 20 years ago the pain was unbelievable, fortunately manipulation, exercise has fixed the problem, no surgery, back pain which have you have obviously never experienced is incapacitating, you CAN\"T MOVE picture yourself, stuck on the floor unable to move, you CAN\"T MOVE if you did you would SCREAM

Bill Bennett

@Katia Where does it say they are testing on sentient animals? I thought the only animals that are sentient are great apes (chimps, orangutans, gorillas), some whales, porpoises and dolphins, and some squids. Are they doing testing on any of those? In this case, I define sentience as being self-aware, not merely intelligent.

Jay Lloyd

I am glad there is such discoveries for potential solution for lower back and backbone problems. However there is now a cure developed by Hong Chi Xiao, a set of Stretching Exercises and Targeted Slapping on our bodies that have solved my severe lower back aches and Neck aches. These exercises are called La-Jin Therapy and Pai Da. If you Google it you can download these exercises. Hope your readers can benefit by reading this.

Leong Hee Chan

I don\'t see anything in this article about vivisection. Sounds like a worthy medical advancement even if it does mean a few small furries need to give up their lies for it.


I suffer with back and leg pain every day. It has effected my life in a negative way for years. Most people don\'t believe you, they just don\'t understand. I have gone from a fit active able person, to someone that feels useless. At times I loose the use of my legs. I have no confidense in my body. The antiinflamitory drugs are wrecking whats left. The pain killers leave you unable to think straight. Who is going to tell me we don\'t need help? This is not one of the major deseases that see public sympathy and charity fund raisers or TV for that matter. Try a walk in my shoes. Thank you to the researchers. It may not help me, but it will help in the end. Now you just need to get doctors (GP\'s) to stop looking at people like me, as lasy not wanting to work people and get us the help we require. Good luck with that!

John Brigden

As someone with \"Compressed Discs\" from 20 years of playing guitar with a lot of female musicians and voluntarily carrying their amps, speaker cabinets, etc. and other assorted equipment up flights of stairs, I\'m all for this research, despite the fact that, at 70, I\'ll see little to no benefit from it directly. As to the model in the photograph? Now that\'s the centerpiece I want at my next birthday party - and everyone to follow.

Myron J. Poltroonian

I suffer from AS and the only thing that keeps me going is the fact that I do Mechanical Work. I am not overweight and never have been but the pain is excruciating. The amount of pain killers I have to take is ridiculous but it is the only thing that brings it to a reasonable level. I\'m all for this as it sounds like it would improve my quality of life. Anyone who is against this has obviously not suffered the pain many of us put up with every day.

Anthony N Wood

Thank god for this kind of research. Anyone who has suffered the pain of Nerves being touched by herniated discs knows that they would do anything to stop the agony. Being immobile for months on end, walking like your a 70 yrs old when your in your prime, having to be cautious about every simple movement, or even the multitude of pain killers to turn you into a living zombie is not a way of life but simply a NON-life. I would do anything to be able to be a productive person again even to have at least 50% mobility like I did 1 1/5 yrs ago. Someone mentioned about testing on animals, Although I agree with stopping the cruelty, how about cutting the idiotic bureaucracy of \"Phase testing\" and take it case by case and let people make decisions for themselves.

Corrie Wright

Sadly, animal testing is a necessity to achieve a better health. This technology might be as important as the first man walking on the moon, not only that, it will relieve millions of people from pain and immobilization. I pitty people that try to stop this because it\'s tested on a couple of animals.

Why don\'t you complain about all the genetical modification and testing on vegetables in stead? Just because you can\'t hear them scream?

I salute all the scientists working toward this technology and hopefully, future generations will be able to stay active until the end of their lives without feeling pain and medically depressed. Thank you for doing this, thank you!


Having had steroid injections to help a disc in my lower spine, I\'m all for lasting alternatives. It was only a few months ago, and already the pain is coming back. I have Ankylosing Spondilitis, (similar to arthritis) with a variety of issues in my lower, middle and upper back, as well as my neck. I, for one, am ALL for it. I\'d be happy to be a part of the U.S. human trials. Hell, I\'d love to have all of the discs in my entire back replaced. I\'m over all of this pain.

Dave Andrews

Yes, there are alternative treatments/therapies that in many cases can slow the progression of many bone/muscular disorders. The key word being slow not stop or repair damage already done. Once a bursa is ruptured such treatments no longer are valid. You have bone rubbing directly against bone. In the spinal column as the neurons that make up the spinal cord travel through bone, then bursa, then bone you can end up with nerves being pinched also or abraded. Drain your car of all fluids and try driving it. The same thing that happens to the car will happen to your bones.

I personally am very happy for animal testing and then human testing. My daughter is has profound brain damage and functions on the level of a 3 month old. 5 years after she got H-Flu meningitis, they came out with a vaccine that can prevent it in children now. I wish it had come out 6 years earlier and may the dogs, cats, pigs, rats, etcetera that died be disposed of with full respect.

Raymond, I hope you have been sterilized and have no present children. Not for the reason of protecting the gene pool but for the reason of if your child were to get some disorder including cancer, a new disease, or has a severe accident and the research on the treatment was canceled due to your attitude, I doubt you could ever forgive yourself.

No, I am not in favor of animal testing for things like cosmetics, but when it comes to true medical technologies, you only have two other choices, no research so the patient is untreated or human testing without animal testing. Look up a drug called Thalidomide. I saw kids affected by it as I grew up and the US had limited usage because it was not approved for prescriptions.

Look at all the drugs that there are law suits over now. Those drugs were tested extensively first in vitro, then animal testing, then human testing. They required review and in-depth analysis of results at each stage before being allowed to continue to the next stage. And they still did not find all the problems.

No, I say animal testing is valid, and I hope people including the researchers remember the purpose and treat the animals as humanely as possible to achieve the research but sometimes vivisection is necessary. You act like they have a fully conscious animal and are enjoying hearing the screams and watching the thrashing as they inject, cut, spray, maim, whatever, ... the animal as they do the procedures. There are sick individuals out there and probably some medical researchers too, but do not consider they are even a significant minority.

I do not as I said approve of the testing done in the cosmetic industry, but really would you smile as your child is declared permanently blind because they used some eye liner and say \"Thank God it is my child that was hurt and not some dog.\" or would you be wanting to sue. With the attitude and pushing of animal rights, not only are you accepting the dangers for yourself and your family, you are forcing those dangers on others.


The gel in natural discs is engineering marvel. It\'s not just gel it\'s has layers of cellular lattices that perform like graphite and can take a lot of compression without bulging out. Unforunately the lattices get s broken down by \'garbage\' created by T cells and the disc bulges out. More should be done to figure out why and how to stop the auto immune self destruction that happens after a nerve pinch /contrution. I found that Ibufen taken very quickly after a pinch helps reduce damage.

But I bet other things could be used.

I also think that low grade gram negative bacteria in an indirect way play a much bigger role in nerve and back problems. Just as oral bacteria cause heart attacks, there have been signs that gram negative bacteria might be hiding out/semi dormant in oxygen poor areas like joints, spinal column (brain?). If they do get found, then our own immune system T cells can cause more damage when it destroys the \'invaders\'.

Medicine seem to think bacteria can\'t exist inside the human body due to T Cells. Dr Barry Marshall proved ulcers were mostly caused by bacteria that live in our stomaches.. it took a decade before any body paid attentiona and lots of life destroying unneeded operations were stopped.

I\'d recomend anyone with severe back pain to try things like Doxycycllin, Hyberbaric treatment and microace, before ever considering surgery. If you can swim it often helps recovery.

Karsten Evans
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