UC Berkeley researchers use cow tails to grow replacement for human spinal disc tissue

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Peg Skorpinski/Courtesy

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A team of researchers at UC Berkeley has discovered a new way to grow replacement human spinal disc tissue, used to repair deteriorated spinal discs.

Campus researchers are growing the new tissue — spongy, protective material in between vertebrae — by using cow tails to replicate human tissue growth. Grown in algae-based gel with conditions that increase the swelling capabilities of the engineered tissues, they develop similarly to human tissue. The cells, after receiving nutrients, use the gel as a “scaffold,” according to the research.

Human disc tissue can be affected by herniated disc injuries: when the disc tissue is squeezed out of place, losing some of its shock-absorbing capacity and potentially causing pain to spinal nerves.

Most cases of herniated disc injuries stem from the lower back, where pain is first noticed, according to Grace O’Connell, campus assistant professor of mechanical engineering and lead researcher at UC Berkeley’s Soft Tissue Biomechanics Lab in the department of mechanical engineering. With herniated discs, O’Connell said, the nucleus pulposus, or the inner core of the vertebral disc, degrades first and pours out into the surrounding annulus fibrosis, or the tough circular exterior, causing pain to the lower back or leg.

“What we do with human spinal disc is replicate and grow the nucleus, which in turn also takes care of the surrounding annulus fibrosus,” O’Connell said.

Dilemmas having to do with spinal damage or herniated discs are normally dealt with by a procedure called total disc replacement, according to O’Connell, and this project might produce an alternative treatment for the injuries. Though total disc replacement is a treatment for spinal and herniated disc injuries, it is not thoroughly tested, she said.

James Iatridis — professor and director of spine research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai — works on the interactions between injury, inflammation and aging of intervertebral discs that result in disc degeneration. According to Iatridis, many of the most promising therapies are currently under development and are expected to take several years before becoming available clinically.

“There are many exciting biomaterials and cell-based regenerative medicine techniques that are likely to promote healing and limiting painful conditions of the spine,” Iatridis said in an email.

O’Connell said that, similarly to anything related to tissue engineering, she does not know how long it will take until the next breakthrough in the research. Butchers have been supplying the cow tails for the project, she said.

Contact Rimon Hossain at [email protected].