Chronic low back pain is a common condition that can significantly reduce the quality of life. The degeneration of the intervertebral disc is one cause for low back pain, and there is no therapeutic intervention that effectively reverses this type of degeneration. Both non-surgical and surgical treatments that are currently used for chronic low back pain aim to help the symptoms associated with the condition but do not address the underlying cause. Recently, however, researchers have begun to explore the ways in which stem cells may be used to help regenerate the intervertebral disc to restore functioning and eliminate low back pain over the long-term. A review of the relevant literature was recently published in Translational Pediatrics.
The intervertebral disc does not have a large potential to regenerate itself, so it is a challenge to find the best cell sources to facilitate such regeneration. Adult mesenchymal stem cells, which are found most often in bone marrow and also in fat, or adipose, tissue are attractive candidates for this type of regeneration given their high capacity to proliferate and to differentiate into different types of cells. In addition, they can self-renew, are highly accessible, and unlike some other types of stem cells, there are no ethical issues associated with their retrieval.
Given the success of mesenchymal stem cell transplantation in preclinical studies of intervertebral disc degeneration, the use of these cells has progressed to clinical trials. Autologous bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells – meaning stem cells taken from the bone marrow of the patients themselves – have been reported in the treatment of disc degeneration in patients with leg and back pain. Reduced pain has been observed at one and two years after transplantation. Importantly, the clinical trials investigating the use of stem cells in intervertebral disc regeneration have provided evidence that the relevant procedures are not only effective but also clinically safe. Future research will help to clarify if and how these and other types of stem cells may be used to reverse intervertebral disc regeneration and the associated chronic low back pain.
Reference: Wei, A. et al. (2014). Mesenchymal stem cells: potential application in intervertebral disc regeneration. Translational Pediatrics, 3(2), 71-90.