15 million euros towards solving chronic back pain

Hundreds of millions of people all over the world have chronic back pain, while there still is no adequate treatment. The consortium iPSpine, formed by core partners at University of Utrecht (UU), Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), University of Nantes and Sheffield Hallam University and coordinated by Professor Marianna Tryfonidou (UU) has received a grant of 15 million euros from the Horizon 2020 programme of the European Commission to overcome this.

Chronic back aches can have several causes, but the problem is a worn-out intervertebral disc in roughly forty percent of cases. This involves about 280 million cases world-wide – including people who are often still productive. In the EU alone, that results in a financial loss of close to 240 billion euros per year. This consortium, iPSpine (induced pluripotent stem cell-based therapy for spinal regeneration) is formed to tackle this enormous socioeconomic problem.

Joining the consortium from the TU/e are Professor Keita Ito with his research group Orthopaedic Biomechanics and Professor Paul Grefen and researcher Rik Eshuis with their colleagues of the research group Information Systems.

Biomaterials

In the upcoming five years, the iPSpine consortium will develop an advanced treatment based on so-called ATMPs (advanced therapy medicinal products). The plan is to develop a treatment that can rejuvenate problematic intervertebral discs by means of specially-grown stem cells. A complicated process; smart biomaterials must be used to create a micro environment in which these stem cells can grow into the right kind of regenerative cells.

At the TU/e, natural extracellular matrix-based biomaterials will be developed to not only guide the regeneration of the intervertebral disc, but also to enable immediate restoration of the biomechanical function of the disc. Furthermore, to speed up the development process and reduce the burden on experimental animals, ex vivo tests in bioreactors will be developed at the TU/e. Finally, a smart digital platform will be developed to efficiently manage the processes of design, modelling and testing of the biomaterials, further speeding up the progress.

The consortium will not only focus on the development of a treatment for back pain but also on innovative platforms for ATMP development in general. As this has never been done before, twenty different partners, who each contribute their own unique expertise, were brought on board. In addition to TU/e and UU, UMC Utrecht and various companies from the Netherlands, six other EU member states, the US and Hong Kong are involved. In the Netherlands, the patient will be represented by ReumaNederland. Five years from now, they will demonstrate that this treatment is safe and the first steps for dogs with back pain will be taken in the clinic. Translation to treatment for humans will follow.

But it will not end there. They believe that far more disciplines of medicine will benefit from iPSpine. Within this consortium, the trailblazing platforms to share knowledge and optimize development may be used for other advanced therapies that are being developed within regenerative medicine, organoids and genetic modification.