Bioengineered Spinal Discs

March 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Every year millions of people experience lower back pain and neck discomfort. Cornell University engineers in Ithaca and doctors at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City have created a biologically based spinal implant that could bring relief to those countless sufferers.

Lawrence Bonassar, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering, in collaboration with Roger Härtl, M.D., associate professor of neurosurgery at Weill Cornell Medical College, and chief of spinal surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, have created bioengineered spinal discs that have been successfully implanted and tested in animals.

“We’ve engineered discs that have the same structural components and behave just like real discs,” says Bonassar. “The hope is that this promising research will lead to engineered discs that we can implant into patients with damaged discs.”

Every year, 40-60% of American adults endure chronic back or neck pain. Patients diagnosed with severe Degenerate Disc Disease (herniated discs) will often undergo a surgery, called a ‘Discectomy’ by neurosurgeons. This surgery involves the removal of the spinal disc followed by a fusion of the vertebrate bones to stabilize the spine. The surgery, although it prevents pain, may limit an individual’s mobility. It can prevent an active lifestyle or end a professional athlete’s career.

The Bonassar-Härtl research team initially engineered an artificial disc, made of two polymers, collagen – which makes up the outer side – and a hydrogel, alginate – which makes up the middle. The discs designed for humans look like a tire. The outer part, the annulus, is made of a stiff metal and the inner part, the nucleus, is made up of a gel that bears weight and pressure. The implants are seeded with cells to repopulate the structure with new tissue.

Over time, the discs have shown to improve as they mature in the body due to the growth of the seeded cells. The implants are specifically intended to treat Degenerate Disc Disease. Traditional implants such as bone, metal and plastic have shown to develop wear and tear over time, leaving debris that can cause problems. The new discs’ material may have a larger advantage, from a biological perspective, due to their successful integration and maturation in the human body. With this new material, surgery will be safer, less painful and implicate fewer long-term effects.


Chimes, A. (2011, August 5). Bioengineered Spinal Disc Could Relieve Back Pain. Retrieved from Voice of America:

Ju, A. (2011, August 1). In the Battle to Relieve Back Aches, Researchers Create Bioengineered Spinal Disc Implants. Retrieved from

Ju, A. (2011, August 2). To Relieve Back Aches, Cornell Researchers Create Bioengineered Spinal Disc Implants. Retrieved from NeuroScience


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