A team including researchers from the Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center in Philadelphia created an injectable gel that shows potential as a treatment for degenerative disc disease. The new substance, a hyaluronic acid granular hydrogel, is made of many microparticles that can be injected easily into the discs between vertebrae to provide cushioning and shock absorption, which could help eliminate back pain in people with degenerative disc disease. The granular nature of the gel allows for improved cell infiltration and lets the material self-repair from friction. The gel also appears opaque under X-ray, allowing for easy monitoring. In animal models, the new gel successfully stopped disc height loss from degeneration and helped maintain disc structural integrity. (Dec. 23, 2023)
Degenerative disc disease is a condition in which the gel-like discs between vertebrae in the spine lose height and volume, causing compression of the nerves and pain. This condition is the leading cause of chronic back pain, experienced by over three million Americans each year. Degenerative disc disease is most frequently caused by wear and tear on the joints related to aging and physical activity. Current treatments for disc degeneration include either physical therapy or surgical spinal fusion. But for many patients, physical therapy is not enough to relieve pain, and spinal fusion limits mobility and can inhibit future tissue repair and recovery.
Replacing lost disc volume with injectable substances offers a less invasive alternative to surgery. Previous trials with different materials have had some success at alleviating chronic back pain, but these attempts have been limited by the materials used. Disc replacements have been complicated by the devices shifting, breaking, or stiffening, which can cause more pain. Negative immune responses also hinder the body’s natural healing processes. The researchers addressed these concerns by creating a granular hydrogel that can be easily injected and monitored without many of the drawbacks of earlier attempts.
While human trials will still be needed to test how well the new material works in human patients, it shows great promise as a treatment for chronic back pain, a condition that affects 40% of Veterans over 65 and many others.
“It's bittersweet—on one hand I have been very fortunate and blessed. On the other hand, for some people, there is no accomplishment I can earn that will allow me to overcome their perceived deficit afforded by either my gender or my race. That is a painful truth, but nonetheless, you move on.”