Low back pain is the leading cause of disability across the globe. Affecting up to 7 million Australians, it also comes with a massive price tag, accounting for $1.2 billion of our national health care expenditure in 2008/2009 alone.
For UTS Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Javad Tavakoli, these figures have inspired a four-year research program that aims to tackle degenerative intervertebral disc (IVD) disease, a spinal disorder known to cause low back pain.
“The intervertebral disc has a role in creating low back pain, but there are a lot of things we still don’t understand about how it works,” says Tavakoli who is based in the School of Biomedical Engineering.
The project has two key components: first, Tavakoli will explore and characterise the structural properties of elastic fibres, of a key component of IVD tissue. Elastic fibres are implicated in the IVD degeneration, but their precise role and function remains unknown.
In the second stage of the work, Tavakoli will develop a tissue-engineered, 3D-printed model of the IVD that can be used for future research. It’s a critical piece of the puzzle – currently, the only available models are either in vitro cell culture models, which aren’t three dimensional, or ex vivo systems that use human or animal IVDs.
“Human IVDs impose a strong bias depending on the age, background, gender and so forth of the donor, while animal IVDs have substantial differences in the spine biomechanics and biology compared to humans,” he says.
As such, Tavakoli will create an exact replica of a real human disc by mapping the organisation of elastic fibres across the IVD. He will then analyse and characterise a series of biomaterials that can be used to produce the model using 3D printing.
In future, the model also has potential for use as an artificial disc to replace degenerated IVDs in humans, as well as to regenerate damaged tendons, ligaments and other soft tissue.
“The impact is huge, because at the moment we don’t have any strategies to regenerate IVDs,” Tavakoli says.
“My work will provide a toolbox and material that can be used for other studies in this field.”