Easing back pain

Researchers at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand are hoping to develop an artificial implant to ease chronic back pain.


Senior mechanical engineering lecturer Dr Mark Staiger and Prof Susan James, a visiting academic from the School of Biomedical Engineering at Colorado State University, are leading a project that will take the first steps towards replicating the structural and physiological properties of the human intervertebral disc.


The team, based at the university’s Centre for Bioengineering, has just been awarded $26,000 from the Brian Mason Scientific and Technical Trust to start the research.


The team also includes Dr Tim Woodfield from the Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering Research Group (BioMATE) within UC’s Centre for Bioengineering.


Dr Staiger said that in most developed countries, lower back pain was the leading cause of chronic disability in adults aged between 18 and 45, and absenteeism due to back pain was second only to the common cold.


‘The conventional treatment for disc-related lower back pain is spinal fusion. However, there are many clinical complications with fusion, particularly when multi-level fusions are required,’ he said.


The commercial market for solutions to lower back pain continues to grow and researchers are now trying to develop biomimetic intervertebral disc replacements that mimic the natural disc and can be used as a clinical alternative to spinal fusion.


‘The UC project aims to replicate the properties of the disc using novel biomanufacturing methods and biomaterials with the aim of producing a replacement for degenerated or damaged discs,’ he said.


The project will investigate different polymers and novel solvents in combination with advanced processing methods such as electrospinning to produce nanofibres that may recreate the properties of the intervertebral disc.


Dr Staiger said the project was part of an effort to develop international collaborative research between UC’s Centre for Bioengineering and the School of Biomedical Engineering at Colorado State University.


As part of that collaboration Prof James, who is the director of Colorado State’s School of Biomedical Engineering, is spending a year at Canterbury University.