Cornell Bio-Engineered Spinal Disc Implants Could Spell Relief for Back / Neck Pain Sufferers

If you’ve ever been struck with painful, almost total immobility because of your back or neck, then you know how excruciating it can be. Millions every year haul themselves to doctors for treatment and become part of a statistic for a broad category of illness called degenerative disc disease, a leading cause of disability worldwide. But now Cornell engineers in Ithaca are working in collaboration with doctors at Weill Cornell Medical College on a bio-engineered spinal implant that could someday spell relief for these millions.

“We’ve engineered discs that have the same structural components and behave just like real discs,” says Lawrence Bonassar, Ph.D, associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering, together with Roger Härtl, M.D., associate professor of neurosurgery at Weill Cornell Medical College and chief of spinal surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

rat spine.jpg

“The hope is that this promising research will lead to engineered discs that we can implant into patients with damaged discs.”

This new research will be published online Aug. 1, 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their other colleagues on the paper are Robby Bowles, Cornell Ph.D. ’11, and Harry Gebhard, M.D., of Weill Cornell Medical College. 40-60 percent of American adults suffer from chronic back or neck pain annually and though there might be a surgery called a discectomy (removing the spinal disk and fusing the vertebrate bones to stabilize the spine), they are for those diagnosed with severe degenerative disc disease or herniated discs. But the patient’s back will not likely feel the same as before.

(Bonassar Lab)
From left, a natural rat IVD compared with a tissue engineered IVD.

“Bone or metal or plastic implants are complicated structures which come with a mechanical risk of the structures moving around, or debris from the metal or plastic particles accumulating in the body from wear and tear,” says Härtl.

From a biological perspective, the new discs could create a “huge advantage” over traditional implants because of how they integrate and mature with the vertebrae. This major surgery would become less invasive, safer and come with fewer long-term side effects, he says.

How’d they do it? Focusing on the regeneration and analysis of musculoskeletal tissue, Bonasser and colleagues engineered artificial discs of two polymers- collagen, which wraps around the exterior and a hydrogel alginate in the middle. These were seeded with cells that repopulate the structures with new tissue. Extraordinarily, though artificial implants today degrade over time, the researchers are finding that the implants actually improve as they mature in the body due to the cell growth. Now that’s progress!

“Our implants have maintained 70 to 80 percent of initial disc height. In fact, the mechanical properties get better with time,” says Bonassar.

The scientists began collaborating on the project in 2006, first funded by an Ithaca-Weill seed grant. Since then, the project has moved into animal testing stages and has received several awards and accolades, a $325,000 grant from Switzerland’s AOSpine foundation and $100,000 in support from NFL Charities.

Isn’t this fantastic news? Regenerative breakthroughs are growing in frequency and affectiveness– help us get there faster!


Ju, Anne. “Back, Neck Pain Sufferers Could Find Relief with Cornell-developed Spinal Disc Implants.” Cornell University | Chronicle Online. Cornell University, 1 Aug. 2011. Web. 2 Aug. 2011.

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