Disc cell therapies: critical issues.
Tibiletti M., Kregar Velikonja N., Urban JPG., Fairbank JCT.
BACKGROUND: Disc cell therapies, in which cells are injected into the degenerate disc in order to regenerate the matrix and restore function, appear to be an attractive, minimally invasive method of treatment. Interest in this area has stimulated research into disc cell biology in particular. However, other important issues, some of which are discussed here, need to be considered if cell-based therapies are to be brought to the clinic. PURPOSE: Firstly, a question which is barely addressed in the literature, is how to identify patients with 'degenerative disc disease' who would benefit from cell therapy. Pain not disc degeneration is the symptom which drives patients to the clinic. Even though there are associations between back pain and disc degeneration, many people with even severely degenerate discs, with herniated discs or with spinal stenosis, are pain-free. It is not possible using currently available techniques to identify whether disc repair or regeneration would remove symptoms or prevent symptoms from occurring in future. Moreover, the repair process in human discs is very slow (years) because of the low cell density which can be supported nutritionally even in healthy human discs. If repair is necessary for relief of symptoms, questions regarding quality of life and rehabilitation during this long process need consideration. Also, some serious technical issues remain. Finding appropriate cell sources and scaffolds have received most attention, but these are not the only issues determining the feasibility of the procedure. There are questions regarding the safety of implanting cells by injection through the annulus whether the nutrient supply to the disc is sufficient to support implanted cells and whether, if cells are able to survive, conditions in a degenerate human disc will allow them to repair the damaged tissue. CONCLUSIONS: If cell therapy for treatment of disc-related disorders is to enter the clinic as a routine treatment, investigations must examine the questions related to patient selection and the feasibility of achieving the desired repair in an acceptable time frame. Few diagnostic tests that examine whether cell therapies are likely to succeed are available at present, but definite exclusion criteria would be evidence of major disc fissures, or disturbance of nutrient pathways as measured by post-contrast MRI.