Scientists from Cornell University are pioneering new spinal treatments that involve 3D printing with stem cells. These new techniques will help people who suffer from degenerative disc disease.

At present, the most common way to treat degenerative disc disease is by removing the damaged discs and locally fusing the spine together to protect the area. When that happens the patient loses some of their flexibility forever. The two new procedures being designed at Cornell will make fusion treatment a thing of the past.

The first procedure focuses on repairing punctured discs. The discs are filled with a stem cell based collagen gel that "plugs" the disk and maintains its height. Depending on the level of damage in a patient's spine, this is the procedure that will be tried first.

Patients who have discs that are too far gone to plug will still need surgery. The damaged disc will be removed and a new 3D printed disc will be inserted in its place. The printed disc is filled with stem cells that continue to change for several weeks after the surgery, eventually turning into the spinal cells they replaced. The process heals the patient and lets them regain a normal level of movement.

Removed spinal disc next to printed disc

"Unlike conventional medical implants, these engineered tissues integrate biologically with the surrounding vertebrae and their mechanical performance improves with time," said Dr. Lawrence J. Bonasser, the team's leader.

The research team has already performed the surgery on over a hundred rats and the next step may be human trials. Dr. Bonasser believes the procedure is probably the most expensive operation ever to be performed on rats, but it has been a resounding success. Once the rat's discs regenerated, they lived out the rest of their lives with full mobility.