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Stem Cells Grow New Spinal Disc Tissue


25 Sept. 2019. Tests with lab animals show stem cells derived from human donors can generate new spinal disc cells and tissue to help treat degenerating discs. Results of the study testing a technology for treating degenerating spinal discs appear in a recent issue of The Spine Journal.

Researchers from the company DiscGenics Inc. In Salt Lake City with colleagues from University of Tennessee medical center in Memphis and others, are studying the feasibility of stem cells to treat degenerating spinal discs. Degeneration of discs, the soft elastic tissue like cartilage between the vertebrae in the spinal column, is one of the most common sources of back and neck pain, as well as weakness and numbness in the arms and legs.

In most cases, these discs that provide elasticity and act as shock absorbers in the cervical and lumbar spinal areas — neck and lower back — wear down over time. Spinal fusion surgery and mechanical replacement devices can provide relief of the pain, but do not restore the properties or functions of original discs.

The team led by Lara Ionescu Silverman, DiscGenics’s research and development director, tested the company’s discgenic cell technology in lab cultures and animals. Discgenic cells are precursor spinal tissue cells partially transformed from a donor’s stem cells. The precursor cells are then injected into the lumbar region of patients’ spines, where they’re designed to transform further to create new spinal disc tissue and prevent inflammation. The company says it has facilities to produce discgenic cells in sufficient quantities that meet quality standards for medical products.

In the study, Silverman and colleagues first tested discgenic cells from various adult human donors in lab cultures. The results show the cells express biomarkers consistent with adult stem cells, and like stem cells, continuing transforming into adult spinal tissue cells. The transformed stem cells also generate extracellular matrix, the framework material in cells, including proteins and collagen found in cartilage. In addition, the transformed cells show no signs of abnormal mutations or tumor characteristics.

The researchers then tested discgenic cells in lab animals. In the first tests with mice, the team injected human discgenic cells under the skin, similar to the method for administering the cells to humans. The results show the discgenic cells over four months generate extracellular matrix in the injected regions, again without signs of tumor or toxicity. For comparison, injections of only the material used to carry discgenic cells produce no new extracellurlar matrix, while HeLa — short for Henrietta Lacks — immortal cancer cells produce tumors in the mice.

The team also injected human discgenic cells in rabbits induced with damaged spinal discs. The results show the rabbits receiving the discgenic injections form more new extracellular matrix and tissue in the damaged discs, resulting in thicker discs than sham cells or injections of just the carrier material. No toxicity or other safety issues were found.

The results, says DiscGenics, show the company’s technology, called IDCT, can safely treat degenerating spinal discs. “If IDCT demonstrates similar results in humans,” says Flagg Flanagan, DiscGenics’s CEO in a company statement, “we believe the outcome could be a reduction in pain and disability, potentially revolutionizing the way millions of patients suffering from the debilitating effects of chronic low back pain are treated.”

Disgenics is recruiting participants for mid-stage human clinical trials testing IDCT among individuals with early to moderate degenerative disc disease in the U.S. and Japan.

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