New Shapeshifting Biogel Could Help Heal Aging Spines

Along with cell therapy, the biomaterial could help stop or reverse the loss of material between vertebrae.

As we get older, the cushy material that absorbs shock between our spinal vertebrae breaks down, creating back pain and inhibiting our mobility. Injections of more nucleus pulposus (NP) cells–the jelly-like tissue found between spinal discs–have been shown to delay this degeneration and relieve pain, but with current methods, the injected cells leak away from the injection site within only a few days.

A new biomaterial created by Duke University biomedical engineers could make cell therapy a more feasible solution to spinal disc degeneration and back pain by keeping those cells in place for longer. The material starts out as an easy-to-inject liquid, then solidifies into a gel, holding more of the NP cells where they’re needed. When it stays at the injection site between the spinal discs, the biomaterial helps distribute pressure and improve spine mobility.

The gel forms when three liquid components mix together. In preliminary testing with rats, the liquid began to solidify after five minutes, and set after 20. The researchers think one of the liquid components, a chemically-modified protein called laminin that’s found in healthy discs, might help the NP cells survive longer and stop degeneration.

The study appears online in Biomaterials.