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The load-bearing biomechanical role of the intervertebral disc is governed by the composition and organization of its major macromolecular components, collagen and aggrecan. The major function of aggrecan is to maintain tissue hydration, and hence disc height, under the high loads imposed by muscle activity and body weight. Key to this role is the high negative fixed charge of its glycosaminoglycan side chains, which impart a high osmotic pressure to the tissue, thus regulating and maintaining tissue hydration and hence disc height under load. In degenerate discs, aggrecan degrades and is lost from the disc, particularly centrally from the nucleus pulposus. This loss of fixed charge results in reduced hydration and loss of disc height; such changes are closely associated with low back pain. The present authors developed biomimetic glycosaminoglycan analogues based on sulphonate-containing polymers. These biomimetics are deliverable via injection into the disc where they polymerize in situ, forming a non-degradable, nuclear "implant" aimed at restoring disc height to degenerate discs, thereby relieving back pain. In vitro, these glycosaminoglycan analogues possess appropriate fixed charge density, hydration and osmotic responsiveness, thereby displaying the capacity to restore disc height and function. Preliminary biomechanical tests using a degenerate explant model showed that the implant adapts to the space into which it is injected and restores stiffness. These hydrogels mimic the role taken by glycosaminoglycans in vivo and, unlike other hydrogels, provide an intrinsic swelling pressure, which can maintain disc hydration and height under the high and variable compressive loads encountered in vivo. © 2013 Acta Materialia Inc. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original publication




Journal article


Acta Biomaterialia

Publication Date





1124 - 1133