Study on Disc Degeneration Could Revolutionize Treatment Options for Lower Back Pain

Baylor Scott & White Research Institute researcher describes molecular pathways that lead to breakdown of soft tissues

New research detailing the molecular mechanisms involved in the breakdown of the soft tissue discs of the spine has the potential to help millions suffering the debilitating back pain, and may provide opportunities for advanced, minimally invasive treatments. The research was conducted by Jason H. Huang, MD, chairman of neurosurgery for Baylor Scott & White Health Central Texas Division and researcher with the Baylor Scott & White Research Institute, and published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine April 7 in a paper entitled, "Ectopic expression of SMURF2 and acceleration of age-related intervertebral disc degeneration in a mouse model."

"This research has the potential to develop technology and therapies that could not only treat disc denegation, but also potentially reverse its course," Dr. Huang said.

Leveraging previous research on SMURF2, a gene that has been implicated in tumor formation and disease progression, the study created an overexpression of the protein to better understand disc degeneration and the molecular mechanisms involved in the breakdown of the soft tissue discs in the human spine.

By understanding the molecular pathways that lead to disc degradation, researchers can develop pharmacological agents and other forms of injectable therapies that may be used in the future to block degenerative mechanisms or promote remodeling processes, which would save millions of people each year from invasive back surgeries or debilitating pain.

Millions in the U.S. suffer from lower back pain, caused in large part by lumbar interverbal disc degeneration, an age-related process where the discs within spine begin to break down, Dr. Huang explained. Although low back pain is a common problem in the aging population, the pain often persists despite surgery. Currently, availability of effective treatments is limited, mostly due to a lack of understanding of the molecular mechanism underlying disc denegation—until now.

"This is a first step in an exciting research journey that will hopefully reduce that burden as well as the number of patients having to undergo invasive surgery, thereby making the population much healthier," Dr. Huang said. "We spend more than $100 billion a year to treat low back pain, which is a significant cost to our society."

This study phase advances more than three years of research on SMURF2 genes. The next phase of research, which applies the findings of SMURF2 to human tissue, will be published later this year. Future goals for research include creating pharmacological treatments at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute for use in human clinical trials.

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As the largest not-for-profit health system in the state of Texas, Baylor Scott & White promotes the health and well-being of every individual, family and community it serves. It is committed to making quality care more accessible, convenient and affordable through its integrated delivery network, which includes the Baylor Scott & White Health Plan, Baylor Scott & White Research Institute, the Baylor Scott & White Quality Alliance and its leading digital health platform – MyBSWHealth. Through 51 hospitals and more than 1,200 access points, including flagship academic medical centers in Dallas, Fort Worth and Temple, the system offers the full continuum of care, from primary to award-winning specialty care. Founded as a Christian ministry of healing more than a century ago, Baylor Scott & White today serves more than three million Texans. For more information, visit: