Contact: Alex Waddington
University of Manchester
Scientists at The University of Manchester believe injections of tiny sponge-like particles could provide an alternative to major surgery in the treatment of chronic lower back pain.
Dr Brian Saunders from The School of Materials and Professor Tony Freemont from The Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences have developed tiny gel particles that swell and stiffen when injected into a damaged area.
Investigations have revealed that degenerated animal intervertebral discs containing the injected ‘microgels’ regain their mechanical properties.
This development opens up the possibility of human patients being able to regain full mobility and flexibility after receiving spinal
This would compare favourably with spinal fusion – a major surgical
procedure with considerable recovery time for the patient, resulting
in a significant loss of mobility at the fused and adjacent discs.
Degeneration of intervertebral discs causes holes in the load-bearing tissue of the disc, decreasing disc height and resulting in pain.
The microgel particles the research team have developed are like
‘smart sponges’ when dispersed in water.
The material is a fluid at a low pH – in other words, a low level of
acidity – and can be injected through a syringe. It changes to a stiff
gel at physiological pH values – that is, once it enters the body –
due to absorption of water by the particles.
During their investigations, the research team injected the material
into a damaged bovine intervertebral disc and increased the pH to
biological levels by injecting an alkaline solution.
Professor Freemont, who works in the Division of Regenerative Medicine in the School of Medicine, said: “This research was motivated by the urgent need for a non-surgical method for repairing intervertebral discs.
“Our approach has the advantage of restoring spinal mobility whereas spinal fusion surgery results in a significant loss of mobility at the fused and adjacent discs.”
Dr Saunders said: “Although we are encouraged by our findings, 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.”
He added that future work will investigate biodegradable microgels
that release additives to stimulate regeneration of intervertebral
The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences
Research Council (EPSRC) and The University of Manchester Intellectual Property Ltd (UMIP).
Dr Saunders and Professor Freemont recently reported their findings in the online journal Soft Matter. They now hope to secure extra funding with a view to conducting clinical trials.
Notes to editors
Media opportunities with Dr Saunders and Prof Freemont are available. Please contact Alex Waddington, Media Relations Officer on 0161 306 3983 or alex.wadding…@manchester.ac.uk.
Microgels are cross-linked polymer particles that are swollen with
EPSRC grant details http://gow.epsrc.ac.uk/ViewGrant.aspx?GrantRef=GR/S75819/01
A study of pH-responsive microgel dispersions: from fluid-to-gel
transitions to mechanical property restoration for load-bearing
tissue. J M Saunders, T Tong, C L Le Maitre, T J Freemont and B R Saunders, Soft Matter, 2007. For the full paper please see
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. For more information on the EPSRC please see www.epsrc.ac.uk.
The University of Manchester Intellectual Property Limited (UMIP) is the managing agent of The University of Manchester for intellectual property commercialisation. For more information please see www.umip.com.