Squishy, doughnut-shaped disks can make the difference between a pain-free, active lifestyle or years of back discomfort. When the disks that normally cushion each vertebra in the spine start to degenerate, due to aging or injury, nerves can be pinched and movement impeded. But degenerating disks may soon be replaceable with bioengineered disk implants grown in the laboratory. A research team has implanted living, biologically based disks into rats’ spines and found that they allow for as much movement as native, healthy disks.
“This is, in my opinion, in a whole different league than tissues that have been engineered before,” says University of Pennsylvania orthopedic bioengineer Robert Mauck, who was not involved in the study. “This is essentially opening the door for replacement of a tissue that’s central to humans walking.”