Award-winning biomaterial heals discs

Back pain
Aston researchers have developed a biomaterial that could help save aging or damaged intervertebral discs without requiring a lengthy surgery or an implant.

This hydrogel, a polymer swollen with water, is still in the gestation phase; the researchers have yet to give it a name or test it in human trials. Yet some spine specialists already see much potential in this technology—enough potential, in fact, to give these researchers a Spine Technology Award for one of the best regenerative technologies of 2009.

How does it work?

Professor Brian Tighe
of Aston University has helped lead the project for over three
years with colleagues from Oxford University and Keele University. The Aston Biomaterials Research Unit combined their experience with artificial tissues with the expert disc physiologists at Oxford University and the top spinal surgeons at The Robert
Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic and District Hospital NHS Trust at Keele University.
After putting their heads together, the team came up with a biomaterial that closely
mimics the natural tissue found inside intervertebral discs.

The nucleus of a spinal disc contains mostly water, and keeping those discs hydrated is
the key to maintaining a normal disc height and spinal support. If a disc becomes injured
or wears thin over time, it may lose the ability to stay hydrated which leads to serious
pain and potentially osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis. There are some other minimally
invasive, non-surgical treatment options which involve injecting material into the disc,
but these procedures often require full or partial nucleotomy and use implants which
may not fully restore disc flexibility. The hydrogel from the Aston-Oxford-Keele team,
however, requires no nucleotomy, and physicians can inject the biomaterial directly into
the disc. According to the researchers, this material could reduce some spinal surgery to
a day procedure as well as offer a solution to the large number of patients deemed
otherwise unsuitable for spinal surgery.

The Aston Biomaterials Research Unit first worked with artificial tissues in a completely
different area—artificial corneas, the surface of contact lenses and chronic wound areas.
“This was a great stepping stone,” says Professor Tighe, “that made us realize there are no long term biocompatibility problems or even short term biocompatibility problems in
putting this material in contact with real tissue because the body uses very similar
approaches to keep the tissue hydrated."

Think of the way the cornea remains hydrated during the day and the way that the disk recovers so well overnight — the underlying mechanism remains exactly the same. And
that is what we sought to mimic.

Funding, research & commercialisation

The first chunk of funding for the research came from the UK government’s Engineering
and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The team received about £750
thousand in grant money which was split evenly among the three universities. As for the
initial tests of the biomaterial, according to Professor Tighe, “What we have done and
have been doing continuously from the beginning is in vitro mechanical testing on
various spine models using cow segments and sheep spine. We have done quite a lot of
in vitro testing which has been all very successful.”

“Following that initial grant,” explains Professor Tighe, “which was really a three-year
grant, we at Aston applied for a one-year follow-up grant from the research council in
order to optimize the functioning of the material and to look at the commercial
exploitation of the material. And that 12-month period is just about up now and we're
writing up our research and results. So I think all of the fundamental work is done, and
we feel that's it's now ready to go into the hands of people who will exploit it more widely
than we are able to.”

According to Darian Brookes, the team’s Business Development Manager, “We have
some contacts with firms, mostly in the US, and we are in the extremely early phases of
what will hopefully lead to actual testing in humans.”

And the research team’s recent Spine Technology Award might just help this project get
the attention of potential partners. Professor Tighe adds:

"This is a very welcome recognition, especially because we hadn’t really set out for great recognition. It's the first time we've put our head above the parapet, and it's good to have
it in such a prestigious area of awards."

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