Damaged spinal discs cause a great deal of trouble for people with chronic back problems, and a burden on the economy due to absenteeism from work and financial costs of treatment.
Sufferers are told to rest, take painkillers and – if these don’t help – undergo operations, but these are not always fully effective. One-tenth of people suffering from degenerated discs suffer from longterm pain and disability.
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But some scientists are trying to find ways to alleviate the problem of damaged discs. Dr. Sarit Sivan of the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology’s biomedical faculty is one of the three winners of the European Commission’s new Marie Curie Prize for outstanding achievement in spinal disc research, announced at a ceremony in Nicosia, Cyprus. She won the prize in the “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” category.
An innovative solution to spinal degeneration
Sivan was selected for her work on materials that can restore the biomechanical function of degenerated discs in spinal columns. Disc degeneration caused by the gradual loss of some of their main components, mainly due to aging, leads to a decrease in biomechanical function affecting the spine. During her Marie Curie fellowship at the University of Oxford in the UK, Sivan developed and successfully tested biocompatible gel-like materials that could replace, through a non-invasive injection, the lost disc components and mimic their functioning.
Spinal discs are made of collagen, water and proteins called proteoglycans; when the discs begin to degenerate, the amounts of proteoglycans and water decline and the damaged disc moves down lower, causing it to rub against others. This makes blood vessels and nerves enter the collagen, resulting in pain that increases as the disc becomes more diseased. A biological approach to fixing discs faced problems because calcification of the disc makes it difficult for collagen cells to survive, which results in the blockage of access of nutrients to the cells and the removal of waste.
“Innovation, entrepreneurial approach”
A potential solution, suggested Sivan, would be rigid, synthetic discs with properties similar to natural ones. However, inserting them by cutting the collagen ring that binds to the spine can lead to the disc’s expulsion due to body weight.
Sivan developed synthetic injectable material that overcomes this problem and can cope with weight the same way natural tissue does.