Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have developed bio-engineered replacement spinal discs. Intervertebral discs are located between the bones of the spine to absorb shock, prevent the bones from painfully rubbing together and protect the nerves of the spinal cord. Degraded discs cause intense chronic pain, which is often debilitating and diminishes a person’s quality of life. The current standard of care involves replacing a damaged disc with a synthetic replacement, which does alleviate some pain, but does not compare to real cartilage. In an animal model, autologous (the patient’s own) mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) were seeded into a biological scaffold where they differentiated into cartilage tissue. When the disc was fully-formed, it was surgically inserted back into the spine, and in a 20 week follow-up the disc maintained its structure and performed as normal.
A stem cell graft to treat cartilage injuries has been approved by the FDA. Created by the biotechnology company Vericel, the procedure is called Matrix Associated Chondrocyte Implantation (MACI), and involves obtaining stem cells from the patient and culturing them in a lab. The cultured cells are then placed into a matrix to create layers of 3D tissue, which is then implanted back into the knee to repair the injured cartilage. This treatment is specifically targeted to younger patients [recall - younger stem cells are more plentiful and more active] who have experienced what is called a focal chondral defect, which is a lesion or hole in the cartilage due to an injury. This treatment is significant because these cartilage lesions often develop into osteoarthritis, with serious implications for the patient’s future quality of life. Hence, utilization of this FDA approved autologous stem cell treatment would not only address the physical distress of the condition but would also effectively mitigate the concerns and stress patients experience regarding future complications.