Prof. Abhay Pandit and his research team at CÚRAM, the SFI Research Centre for Medical Devices based at NUI Galway, has just published their research into a potential new treatment for lower back pain in the journal Science Advances.

Science Advances is a prestigious journal from American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that publishes innovative original research across all disciplines of science freely to a global audience.

Lower back pain is the second leading cause of disability worldwide and a common reason for lost work days. Over 48% of Europeans and 80% of US citizens experience low back pain due to degenerative intervertebral discs (IVDs) at some point in their lives, with associated healthcare expenditure estimated over 100 billion dollars annually in USA and €5.34 billion in Ireland alone. The prevalence of back pain is set to increase substantially in the coming years due to our ageing population.

Degeneration of the intervertebral disc results in the compression of the spinal nerves and adjacent vertebrae. Recently, as an alternative to the current conservative treatment or surgical interventions for lower back pain, which are non-regenerative in nature, researchers have started to investigate molecular therapies to see if regeneration of the inflamed disc is possible.

In the clinic, a substance called hyaluronan (also known as hyaluronic acid) has been shown to facilitate long-term functional improvements by reducing inflammation and pain in a number of clinical conditions, including osteoarthritis surgeries. Hyaluronan (HA) is a structural component of tissues in the body, providing strength, lubrication and hydration within the cell’s environment. It also regulates cell movement encourages cell proliferation and differentiation, making it an active, signalling molecule.

The multidisciplinary research team working on this project included Prof Abhay Pandit, Prof. Peter Dockery, Prof. David Finn and Dr Michelle Kilcoyne, with researchers Dr Isma Liza Mohd Isa and Dr Sunny Abbah, based at NUI Galway as well as Dr Daisuke Sakai from the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Tokai University School of Medicine in Kanagawa, Japan.

“The mechanisms by which hyaluronan targets inflammatory pain in disc degeneration had never been assessed” explains Dr Mohd Isa. “Our research focused on assessing whether a hyaluronan hydrogel has the ability to reduce inflammatory pain and promote disc repair. The results now suggest that it does indeed have a potential therapeutic application for the treatment of back pain associated with disc degeneration.”

Implantation of the HA hydrogel alleviates pain through alteration in the glycomic and protein regulatory pathways in the cell; thereby suggesting promise as a potential therapy in the treatment of back pain.

“The HA hydrogel can be adapted to an injectable system which is far preferable to surgical intervention in these cases” said Prof Abhay Pandit, Scientific Director of CÚRAM “We are delighted to see this research being acknowledged in a top journal like Science Advances. Our aim at CÚRAM is to radically improve quality of life for patients suffering from chronic illness and this research takes us a step forward toward to doing just that for sufferers of disc degeneration and lower back pain”

Interest in this technology has already been expressed by CÚRAM’s industry partners and has resulted in further collaborative work in this area.