Researchers receive $100,000 NFL grant to study tissue engineering for spinal injuries

Researchers from Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medical College have been awarded $100,000 by NFL Charities, the charitable foundation of the National Football League owners, to research tissue engineering for spinal injuries. The research aims to create a living, bioengineered intervertebral disc (IVD) that may be implanted into patients with degenerated discs, either due to injury or chronic wearing with age.

Each year, 40 percent to 60 percent of American adults suffer from chronic back or neck pain. For patients diagnosed with severe degenerative disc disease, or a herniated disc, neurosurgeons perform surgery called discectomy — removing the IVD — followed by a fusion of the vertebrate bones to stabilize the spine. In spite of the surgery, the patient's back will likely not feel the same as before their injury. Herniated discs are a common injury for professional athletes, who must often suffer with the side effects of currently available discectomy and spinal fusion.

"We hope to create a living implant that is able to grow, adapt and integrate into the spine in order to completely repair the injury and restore function to the spine," says Dr. Larry Bonassar, principal investigator of the study and associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering at the School of Engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Dr. Bonassar and his lab are constructing engineered IVDs from sheep tissue and cells, molded into the shape and structure of naturally found discs. The IVDs consist of two major structures, an inner nucleus, surrounded by an outer annulus. The scientists grow the cells, which mature and multiply on a natural mold to re-create a fully functional, implantable disc.

"When a disc is herniated, the inner nucleus bursts, causing pain and discomfort to patients because the IVD is no longer able to maintain the correct pressure and alignment of the spine," explains Dr. Roger Härtl, co-principal investigator of the study and a noted neurological surgeon and co-director of The Spine Center at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, and the Leonard and Fleur Harlan Clinical Scholar and associate professor of neurological surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

Dr. Härtl, who is also the Team Neurosurgeon for the New York Giants, is testing the engineered discs, made by Dr. Bonassar, by implanting them into the spines of animals who suffer from disc degeneration. A previous project shows that engineered IVDs, implanted into healthy animals, were able to maintain the proper pressure and support after one year. This new project hopes to show the same results in the injured animals.

"Our goal is to eventually test the bioengineered IVDs in human patients who are suffering from disc degeneration," says Dr. Härtl.

"We are proud to support sports-related medical research proposals through NFL Charities Medical Research Grants," says NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, president of the NFL Charities Board. "These grants will help to address risk factors for football players and all athletes, and make the game safer."

This year, NFL Charities has awarded more than $1.6 million in grants to support sports-related medical research at 16 organizations. This year's grants include studies on association between football exposure and dementia in retired football players; the dynamic heart rate behavior of NFL athletes; the prevalence, distribution and fate of MRSA on synthetic turf grass systems; concussion surveillance among a large national sample of middle school football players; the role of cervical spine in football-related concussion; and an integrated neuroimaging study for diagnosing and monitoring mild traumatic brain injury in football players.

Source: Cornell University

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