Hydrogel + Stem Cells Improve Disc Conditions in Goats

This post comes from Fred Nelson, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon in the Department of Orthopedics at Henry Ford Hospital and a clinical associate professor at Wayne State Medical School. Some of Dr. Nelson’s tips go out weekly to more than 3,000 members of the Orthopaedic Research Society (ORS), and all are distributed to more than 30 orthopaedic residency programs. Those not sent to the ORS are periodically reposted in OrthoBuzz with the permission of Dr. Nelson.

One of the key changes leading to intervertebral disc degeneration is the loss of complex proteoglycans in the nucleus pulposus (NP), which leads to a loss of water avidity, physiologic dysfunction, NP tissue rigidity, and disruption of surrounding disc tissues. In humans, these changes can begin as early as the second decade of life. One of the difficulties in developing cellular therapies to address these changes is creating a hydrogel that can support effective delivery of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs).

University of Pennsylvania researchers chemically induced degeneration in lumbar discs in adult male goats. After 12 weeks, some of the degenerating discs were injected with either a hydrogel alone (n=9 discs) or hydrogel with 10 million mesenchymal stem cells per ml (n=10 discs). The remaining discs received neither injection. Two weeks later, researchers analyzed disc height, hydrogel distribution, and MSC localization using green fluorescent protein (GFP) immunostaining.

After 12 weeks of disc degeneration, disc height was approximately 66% of pre-intervention levels. After 2 weeks of the treatment phase, researchers found an insignificant increase in height in the hydrogel-alone discs, and a significant 7.6% height increase in the hydrogel-with-MSCs discs. Imaging revealed that the majority of hydrogel was located in the NPs of the treated discs.

Treated discs exhibited improved overall histological grade compared to untreated discs, but the improvement was significant only in discs treated with hydrogel + MSCs. The fact that GFP-positive MSCs were identified both in the hydrogel itself and in the surrounding NP tissue suggests that MSCs migrated beyond the injection site.

The question remains whether we can similarly improve physiology in the wide spectrum of degenerative disc disease experienced by humans. Let’s hope that future investigations yield positive findings.

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