A multi-million pound “revolutionary” research project has been launched to regenerate damaged spinal discs and cure back pain at a university in Sheffield.
Research has begun at Sheffield Hallam University in collaboration with 20 other partners across Europe to develop a technique to use stem cells to repair and regenerate spinal discs.
“This pan-European research will look to develop revolutionary techniques which could save billions in lost work days”
Christine Le Maitre
The five-year project, led by Utrecht University in the Netherlands, will see a team of scientists and engineers from across the continent to also restore spinal discs to the condition they would have been up to 30 years ago.
Sheffield Hallam, who specialise in healthcare research, are set to receive around £1.1m of a £15m EU Horizon 2020 grant, combining expertise from two of the university’s leading research centres.
As part of the project, researchers from the institution will examine the behaviour of stem cells when they are combined with other bio-materials, in a bid to establish their suitability and use in treatment.
According to the university in Sheffield, if the work is successful, it is hoped that cells can be injected directly into spinal discs which would enable them to regenerate and restore them to what they would have been when the patient was a young adult, around 18-20 years old.
The team’s plan is to have the technique going through human clinical trials after five years of research.
“Developing a treatment that can rejuvenate problematic intervertebral discs by advanced stem cells, is a very complicated process”
The new treatment will be aimed at ”working age” people, of between 30 and 50 years old. It is hoped that this will help to cut the number of otherwise healthy people having to quit work or leave their jobs due to back pain.
Globally, around 80% of people will suffer some form of back pain, with 40% of those people being suitable for this treatment, noted Sheffield Hallam. It also highlighted that estimates suggest that back pain costs the UK economy £20bn a year because of loss of work and absentees.
At Hallam, the project will be led by Christine Le Maitre, professor of cell biology and tissue regeneration and a part of the University’s Biomolecular Sciences Research Centre, and Chris Sammon, professor of polymer science from the Materials Engineering Research Institute (MERI).
Professor Le Maitre said: “Lower back pain affects millions of otherwise healthy people worldwide, detrimentally impacting how they work, socialise and travel.”
“This pan-European research will look to develop revolutionary techniques which could save billions in lost work days, help prevent pain and get people back on their feet,” he said.
“Five years from now, we will prove that this treatment is safe and the first steps in clinically relevant models will be taken bringing us closer to the patients”
Professors Sammon and Le Maitre worked together previously on similar research in 2017 when the pair developed a range of revolutionary hydrogels in order to remedy degenerative disc disease.
Hydrogels are 3D crosslinked polymer networks containing large amounts of water. The researchers have developed a method of manufacturing hydrogels that can be injected into mammals using narrow gauge needles, minimising localised tissue damage, and free of any toxic effect.
Professor Marianna Tryfonidou, project lead at Utrecht University, added: “Developing a treatment that can rejuvenate problematic intervertebral discs by advanced stem cells, is a very complicated process.”
“That’s why we need the unique expertise of the 20 different partners,” she said. “Five years from now, we will prove that this treatment is safe and the first steps in clinically relevant models will be taken bringing us closer to the patients.”
christine le maitre and chris sammon