Using notochordal cells to regenerate the degenerated intervertebral disc

Stefan de Vries

Disc degeneration is one of the main causes of low back pain and is characterized by the inability of the resident cells to maintain a healthy tissue, due to a decreasing number and/or a change of phenotype. Current treatments are only symptomatic and new approaches addressing the underlying cause of disc degeneration are needed, like cell-based regenerative treatments. In fact, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) have already been shown to stop but not reverse this degenerative process. Innovative approaches are therefore needed to further promote disc matrix production by resident and/or regenerative cells.

In human adults, the core of the disc is mainly populated by chondrocyte-like nucleus pulposus cells (NPCs). During growth however, when the largest amount of matrix is produced, large vacuolated notochordal cells (NCs) are also present. As the disappearance of these cells coincides with the onset of disc degeneration, they are believed to play an important role in disc homeostasis.

In this project, by (co-)culturing different cell types, we will show that NCs can increase the synthesis of functional matrix by resident cells, the NPCs, or by regenerative cells, the MSCs. Furthermore, the mechanism behind the NC’s up-regulation of matrix production by NPCs/MSCs (i.e. cell-cell contact or molecular interactions) will be deduced, and in case of molecular interactions, the factor(s) responsible for the NC’s up-regulating effect will be identified. Ultimately, this study will provide not only knowledge on the role of NCs in disc regeneration, but also an innovative treatment for patients suffering from disc degeneration.

This project is funded by AO Spine