Age-related wear (degenerative disc disease), injuries, and spinal deformities can damage the spongy, supportive discs that cushion the spine’s bones to the point where surgery is necessary. Not too long ago, the most reliable option was fusion surgery performed to stabilize the spine after disc removal. Thanks to remarkable advances in technology, artificial disc replacement has become one of the most reliable alternatives to spinal fusion surgery. Los Angeles patients may soon even have discs grown in labs from their own cells, which could produce even better results.
One of the newer advances in spinal disc replacement involves non-specific cells, called stem cells, that can become specialized cells under the right circumstances. In clinical trials, researchers have been able to grow spinal disc cells from stem cells obtained from goats. The collected cells were then used to replace worn spinal discs in the same goats. Five months after surgery, the replacement discs were still working well. The hope is that similar results will eventually be seen in humans with problem discs.
Until recently, the main focus has been on improving the quality of artificially produced discs. While this is a worthwhile goal, lab-grown discs created from stem cells may be able to overcome some of the challenges associated with artificial discs, specifically issues with compatibility. Since lab-grown discs are made from a patient’s own cells, acceptance by the body won’t be a concern.
Before patient-sourced stem cell discs become a realistic possibility for humans, further testing is needed to get a better idea of what long-term results may be like, which is why there’s so much buzz about results from the research involving goats. Researchers plan to continue to evaluate results to determine if lab-grown discs will hold up as well as artificially created ones.
Previously, research of this nature involved rats. However, goats are considered better test subjects because their cervical spinal discs are about equal in size and shape to those found in humans. Disc wear patterns are also similar. If results continue to be promising, it may not be long before the FDA approves human trials.
In general, some patients prefer replacing worn or damaged discs instead of fusing vertebrae for the following reasons:
• Replacement discs, whether lab-grown or artificial, don’t limit movement in the affected area
• Range of motion and flexibility are both preserved
• There’s less risk of damage to other parts of the spine—fusions sometimes transfer stress to nearby areas and create new sources of instability
While the future is certainly bright when it comes to what’s happening with artificial and lab-grown spinal discs, there are times when a discectomy (partial or complete disc removal surgery) and fusion is still the better option. If you’re a good candidate for disc replacement, take comfort in knowing discs used today often effectively mimic the appearance and function of natural spinal discs. A Los Angeles spine surgeon can help you explore your options. If you’re experiencing disc-related pain or any other issue related to spinal health, call on the industry-leading experts at The Spine Institute. Reach out to one of our friendly representatives today at 310-828-7757 to schedule an appointment.