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Grant for Spinal Discs

Scientists from Cornell and Weill Cornell Medical College have been awarded $100,000 by NFL Charities, the charitable foundation of the National Football League owners, to research tissue engineering for spinal injuries. The research aims to create a living, bioengineered intervertebral disc (IVD) that may be implanted into patients with degenerated discs, either due to injury or chronic wearing with age.

“We hope to create a living implant that is able to grow, adapt and integrate into the spine in order to completely repair the injury and restore function to the spine.” said Larry Bonassar, principal investigator of the study and associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Bonassar and his lab are constructing engineered IVDs from sheep tissue and cells, molded into the shape of structure of naturally found discs. The IVDs consist of an inner nucleus surrounded by an outer annulus. The scientists grow the cells, which mature and multiply on a natural mold, to re-create a fully functional, implantable disc.

Each year, 40 to 60 percent of American adults suffer from chronic back or neck pain. For patients diagnosed with severe degenerative disc disease, or a herniated disc, neurosurgeons perform surgery called discetomy—removing the IVD—followed by a fusion of the vertebrate bones to stabilize the spine. In spite of the surgery, the
patient’s back will likely not feel the same as before the injury. Herniated discs are a common injury for professional athletes, who most often suffer with the side effects of currently avaiable discetomy and spinal fusion.

”When a disc is herniated, the inner nucelus bursts, causing pain and discomfort to patients because the IVD is no longer able to maintain the correct pressure and alignment of the spine,” said co-principal investigator Dr. Roger Härtl, co-director of The Spine Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Härtl is also the Leonard and Fleur Harlan clinical scholar, an associate professor of neurological surgery at WCMC, and the team neurosurgeon for the New York Giants.

Härtl is testing the engineered discs, made by Bonassar, by implanting them into the spines of animals that suffer from disc degeneration. A previous project shows that engineered IVDs, implanted into healthy animals, were able to maintain the proper pressure and support after one year. The researchers hope the next phase of research will show the same results in the injured animals.

“Our goal is to eventually test the bioengineered IVDs in human patients who are suffering from disc degeneration.” Härtl said.

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