Back pain plagues everybody at some point or another. You twist it, you drunkenly sleep on the kitchen floor for too long, your niece was a couple years too old for that piggyback ride — it happens. Or maybe you have Degenerative Disc Disease, which is a pretty good chance since 30 million Americans suffer from it. If you’re not familiar, the condition is the degeneration of one or more of the intervertebral discs of the spine, which are the cartilage spacers between the vertebrae. It can be extremely painful and often requires surgery that involves fusing vertebrae together; while this can relieve the pain, it inhibits flexibility. And I know from experience that invasive spinal fusion surgery is no picnic. To offer a better solution to dealing with the detrimental effects of DDD, scientists at Cornell have been experimenting with repairing degenerated discs through 3D printing.
You may remember the Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Cornell University, Dr. Lawrence Bonassar, from his success with 3D printing ears onto rats. Well now he and his colleagues are repairing the spines of rats with bioprinting. By loading a bioprinter with stem cells, a much less invasive surgery can be performed where the degenerated parts of the discs are targeted by the bioprinter. As is the nature of stem cells, they become spinal disc tissue over a couple weeks. So far, the procedure has been very successful on rats. Dr. Bonassar believes that entire discs can be printed in cases where patents’ discs are severely degenerated, though the surgery would be more complicated.
Research like this so quickly leads to major breakthroughs when bioprinting is involved. It wasn’t long ago that I was speculating about treating arthritis with some of the first bioprinted cartilage, and now spinal repair is on the table. The FDA has already approved a 3D printed polymer for cranial implantation, so bioprinted tissues will likely be going through initial trials soon.