Injectable gel for spinal repair progresses to veterinary trial

Date: June 25, 2020

An injectable gel material to repair spinal discs is being tested on elderly sheep in an innovative animal trial funded by the IKC.

Sheep with degenerated spinal discs are fitted with a body movement tracker similar to a fitbit. After an initial period of observation, the gel will be injected into the sheep’s affected discs with the aid of MRI scans. As well as seeing if the animals’ movement and behaviour changes, using tracker data and video evidence, the researchers will study the safety of the gels and any changes to spinal tissue.

From liquid to solid

The peptide combination gel starts as a liquid, becoming more viscous once it is injected and is able to withstand the forces associated with the spinal discs.

The liquid form allows it to be injected using a very narrow needle, unlike other treatments which require a bigger needle and therefore a larger hole, involving greater risk.

Versus Arthritis is also a partner in the trial, which is led by Professor Ruth Wilcox, Professor of Biomechanical Engineering at Leeds University.

She said: “Moving from the lab to the veterinary surgery presented us with many challenges – not many live animal studies have been done on disc degeneration.”

Complementary expertise

But a chance encounter at one of the IKC’s annual meetings provided Professor Wilcox’s team with a vital link to another group of researchers in Cambridge working on knee treatments in large animals. “We realised they had exactly the knowledge we were seeking. We’ve subsequently been able to work closely with each other and it’s been a great marriage of experts in different fields.”

As well as funding the sheep trial, IKC have had vital input since the earliest days of the project.

Professor Wilcox said: “IKC have been absolutely crucial to its development. I was able to have conversations with them about the technology very early on, and patenting the peptide gel was done with their expertise and financial help. They have been integral to getting the translation aspect of this off the ground and I don’t think it would have gone as far without them.”

If effective, it is hoped that the results of this research will eventually support the commercial uptake of this product for disc repair. Since degenerated or damaged discs are one of the most common causes of back pain, the potential application of the product is enormous.

Dr Graeme Howling, Senior Technology Innovation Manager at Medical Technologies Innovation and Knowledge Centre, said: “Both the IKC and Versus Arthritis are very excited about this potential treatment. Degeneration of the spinal discs can cause persistent long-term pain, limit normal activity and reduce quality of life for patients; and options at present are limited to major surgery with variable outcomes. The treatment being developed by Professor Wilcox has the potential to restore the properties of a damaged disc to that of a healthy disc, with minimally invasive application. If successful, this could lead to a treatment that relieves pain for patients and enables them to resume normal day-to -day activities, without the need for a major operation.”

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