New Method of Differentiating Stem Cells Could be Used to Treat Degenerative Disc Disease

New Method of Differentiating Stem Cells Could be Used to Treat Degenerative Disc Disease

When the load-bearing discs in the spine breakdown, they deform causing severe neck and back pain. It has been estimated that approximately 80% of adults suffer from neck or back pain at some point in their lives, with many cases due to the breakdown of discs. Degenerative disc disease is extremely common and expensive to treat.

The cost of treating the condition is considerable. Add on the costs from patients being prevented from being able to work and the total rises to around $86 billion in the United States alone.

Degenerative disc disease is often caused by the degeneration of a tissue called nucleus pulposus, of which discs are mostly comprised. At the tissue degenerates, the discs start to deform, lose their shape, and their load-bearing ability declines as a result.

If nucleus pulposus can be restored, it would be possible to treat degenerative disc disease in adults if the condition is detected early. One method of restoring nucleus pulposus is to use stem cells. Stem cells can form any tissue in the body, and could therefore be used to regenerate nucleus pulposus, provided researchers can trigger the cells to differentiate correctly.

Now a team of researchers from Washington University in St. Louis believe they have developed a technique that allows them to guide the differentiation process and derive nucleus pulposus type cells from human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs).

Before developing an experiment to guide the differentiation process, the researchers first studied developmental biology and created a differentiation protocol that mimicked embryonic development. In human development, intervertebral discs arise from the notochord – a cartilage-shaped rod. The first step for the researchers was to differentiate stem cells into notochordal cells, before progressing to the second step of forming NP-type cells.

Lori Setton, Professor of Biomedical Engineering and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, and her team exposed hiPSCs to a combination of different growth factors to first develop markers for notochord cells. The second step was to use a similar technique to change the resultant notochord cells into NP-type cells. The process was tracked using fluorescent cell imaging which checked for the various markers at each step of the process.

Applying the right growth factors was a major challenge, “You can push it in one direction, but you have to pull it from the other direction as well. I could push it toward a nerve, but I have to pull it from becoming bone. We didn’t know what combination would work,” said Setton. “It’s like cooking in the kitchen, and you have to add things to the gravy. It took us a really long time to figure out that perfect recipe. But now that we did, it’s very repeatable.”

Setton’s research – Differentiation of human induced pluripotent stem cells into nucleus pulposus-like cells – has recently been published in the journal Stem Cell Research & Therapy.

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