March 27, 2007

Micro particles injected into discs as a liquid that transform into stiffened gel inside the body have caused researchers to ponder the possibility of a non-surgical procedure for treating chronic lower back pain, a condition routinely addressed by invasive spinal fusion surgery.

The new approach would restore spinal mobility to a far greater degree than current surgical techniques that fuse adjacent discs.

The tiny gel particles that are fluid at low pH but stiffen at physiological pH values were developed by University of Manchester (UK) researchers Dr Brian Saunders and Professor Tony Freemont. When dispersed in water, the particles react like “smart sponges.”

During research investigations degenerated intervertebral discs in animals injected with the microgels regained their mechanical properties. Successful human application of the procedure raises the possibility patients could regain full mobility and flexibility after being treated with the microgel.

“Although we are encouraged by our findings,” Saunders said, “much work lies ahead to develop a viable non-surgical repair technology to replace spinal fusion as the standard surgical treatment for chronic lower back pain.”

—Frank Long