The spinal column is made up of more than a dozen vertebral bones stacked on top of each other. Since the spine is not a single bone, it is capable of pivoting and bending, which gives the torso a degree of flexibility. A key part of this structure relies on the substance between the vertebral bones called the intravertebral disc.
The intravertebral disc is made up of the annulus fibrosis (the tough outer ring) and the nucleus pulposus (the jelly-like inner core). Each intervertebral disc acts as a shock absorber between the vertebral bones. Over time and with age, however, the intervertebral disc tends to breakdown. This can cause called degenerative disc disease, which includes herniated discs (“slipped discs”), pinched nerves, neck and back pain, and nerve problems. Obviously, finding ways to reverse or prevent intravertebral discs from breaking down is of great medical and scientific interest and for the countless patients with degenerative disc disease.
As with other groups interested in regenerative medicine, researchers have turned to stem cells in an effort to regenerate tissue within the intravertebral disc. One research group reported their recent success using bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells. The scientists collected exosomes—very small packets filled with highly concentrated molecules such as proteins, microRNA, transcription factors and lipids—from these stem cells. In this study, researchers also collected exosomes from nucleus pulposus cells and tested the exosomes in various ways.
The researchers found that exosomes could send out signals to bone marrow mesenchymal cells and call them to the intervertebral disc. The exosomes also prompted the stem cells to become new nucleus pulposus-like cells. Conversely, exosomes from bone marrow mesenchymal cells caused nucleus pulposus cells to grow and multiply (i.e. proliferate). Finally, exosomes helped the tissue in degenerating vertebral discs to express the same genes as healthy discs.
While these results are complex, they suggest that exosomes from bone marrow mesenchymal cells and nucleus pulposus cells work together to recruit and make more healthy cells in degenerating vertebral discs. This could have profound implications for the millions of people with degenerative disc disease. If these results are confirmed in clinical trials, it would mean that exosomes could be used to prevent or reverse degenerative disc disease. We anxiously await further work in this exciting field.
Reference: Kang L. et al. (2017). Exosomes as potential alternatives to stem cell therapy for intervertebral disc degeneration: in-vitro study on exosomes in interaction of nucleus pulposus cells and bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells. Stem Cell Research Therapy. 2017; 8: 108.