The revolutionary disc-on-a-chip technology shows great potential for advancing back pain research

Lower back pain is often caused by the intervertebral disc degeneration, a cartilage cushion between the vertebrae. This can occur due to aging, structural defects, or injury.

It is recognized as the primary cause of disability across the world. Additionally, it ranks as the third most expensive health condition worldwide.

Unfortunately, current treatment options only relieve symptoms, often requiring pain medication and surgery with potential drawbacks. Despite its prevalence, there is still no cure for this condition.

Efforts to reverse intervertebral disc degeneration or engineer replacement tissue have not progressed much. However, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) biomedical engineers have created an intervertebral disc-on-a-chip called a “precision engineered toolbox for low back pain studies [1].” 

Dr. Javad Tavakoli, a Chancellor’s Research Fellow, stated that researchers had needed a platform to simulate healthy and diseased intervertebral discs due to the lack of solutions to root causes and the high percentage of back surgery revisions.

Dr. Tavakoli and UTS Professor of Biomedical Engineering Joanne Tipper collaborated with clinicians and cell specialists to develop an in vitro model that accurately simulates lower back pain’s physiological and clinical conditions.

The disc-on-a-chip model is the first in the world and provides a controlled environment for research purposes.

Professor Tipper explained that the human intervertebral disc has a complex structure and composition. It has a gel-like nucleus at the center, surrounded by concentric collagen fibers layers. These three regions work together to provide flexibility and load-bearing strength to the spine.

The complex nature of the intervertebral disc has made it challenging to create a model that accurately mimics its mechanical properties and can be used to test potential treatments or regeneration methods.

Similarly, animal models have proven ineffective in producing physiologically and clinically relevant results due to the human intervertebral disc’s varying size, mechanics, and biology.

The disc-on-a-chip is a microfluidic device that uses 3D printing to create a high-resolution model of the different regions within a natural disc. It has three channels and can even be personalized to an individual.

According to Dr. Tavakoli, the disc-on-a-chip has multiple uses. It can either simulate the degeneration of a healthy disc or be configured as a degenerated disc to assess the effectiveness of new medicines or cell therapy [2].

“Our chip allows for cost and time-efficient lab experiments that can improve the relevance of experimental data, leading to successful clinical outcomes. Additionally, it presents the opportunity to decrease the need for animal testing in the lab.”

This discovery has gained recognition and received two awards: the AO Spine 2022 Discovery and Innovation Award and the 2022 David Findlay Early Career Research Award from the Australian and New Zealand Orthopaedic Research Society.


Photograph: Iakobchuk/Envato
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