Project team on the cusp of a cure for back pain

Scientists working on a potential cure for chronic back pain through hydrogel injections than can regenerate damaged discs are set to unveil their research at a major conference and exhibition next month.

The Hydrogel Delivery For The Back project at Sheffield Hallam University has pioneered a minimally invasive injection that contains stem cells, growth factors and inhibitors in a package that would be injected directly into the intervertebral discs of patients.

The team has secured a commercial partner for its work and is also working with Nottingham-based pharma firm Critical Pharmaceuticals Limited to develop fresh research which, if tests are successful, has the potential to repair soft tissue in the back.

The team at Sheffield Hallam is working on ways to encapsulate and protect fragile protein-based inhibitor molecules so they can be slowly released and offer protection over a period of months after injection.

Early tests have shown that the unique combination found in the hydrogel system can promote the regeneration of new intervertebral disc matrixes using the adult stem cells. The next step will be to test the hydrogel delivery package in a human tissue culture and then possibly animal models.

Lower back pain affects approximately 80 per cent of the population at some point in their lives, incurring a cost of billions to the NHS and the wider economy through sickness leave.

Approximately 40 per cent of cases of lower back pain are caused by degradation of the intervertebral discs, which are composed of a flexible matrix of proteoglycans and collagens, dispersed with maintenance cells.

Dr Chris Sammon, a principal research fellow in Sheffield Hallam's Materials and Engineering Research Institute (MERI), and one of the lead investigators of the project, said: "Our initial laboratory studies have been encouraging, showing that hydrogel injections could potentially repair and restore damaged discs.

"Although the work is still in its infancy, it has enormous potential. If our product comes to the open market, it could prove to be a blockbuster with a market value of tens of millions."

Project co-leader Dr Christine Le Maitre, a senior lecturer in Sheffield Hallam's Biomedical Research Centre (BMRC) added: ‘One of the main causes of lower back pain is the close proximity of the nerve root to moveable structures. When you move, you bend, you flex; all of that is made possible because through your spine you have these intervertebral discs, which basically act as shock absorbers allowing all the stresses and strains to be dissipated though the spine.

"Our novel therapy holds to the potential to restore these discs returning their function and removing the pain."

Hydrogel Delivery For The Back is part of a four-day exhibition, Encompass, celebrating the conclusion of Sheffield Hallam University's Engineering For Life project.

The exhibition, which brings together more than 30 Engineering For Life projects, is being held in Hallam Hall from Monday 11 to Thursday 14 June.

Research on Hydrogel was made possible through Engineering For Life, a £1m four-year programme to encourage interdisciplinary working at Sheffield Hallam and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Professor Chris Care, who is leading on the Engineering For Life project, said: "The Hydrogel team has been nurtured and supported through Engineering For Life and is a superb illustration of what the project was set up to achieve.

"It is a true collaboration between our scientists and bioscientists which has the potential to end back pain for millions of people."


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