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International prize for Nottingham spine research

A study aimed at overcoming problems with treatments for a common cause of back pain has picked up one of the most prestigious prizes in spinal research.

The research paper produced by the team of surgeons, engineers and physicists at The University of Nottingham has scooped two out of three categories of the annual ISSLS Prize for Lumbar Spine Research.

Awarded by the International Society for the Study of the Lumbar Spine (ISSLS), the accolade is designed to encourage innovative new work in the field and comes with a $15,000 cash prize for each successful researcher or team.

The multi-disciplinary nature of the Nottingham paper, entitled What influence does sustained mechanical load have on diffusion of small solutes in the human intervertebral discs, was recognised when judges decided to honour it in both the bioengineering studies and studies in other basic science areas categories.

The University of Nottingham research team was made up of Dr Donal McNally in the Department of Mechanical, Materials and Manufacturing Engineering, Professor Penny Gowland of the Sir Peter Mansfield Magnetic Resonance Centre in the School of Physics and Astronomy, Brigitte Scammell, head of the department of Orthopaedic and Accident Surgery in the School of Clinical Sciences, Brian Freeman, a former University of Nottingham academic now at the University of Adelaide, and Arun Ranganathan, a former student at The University of Nottingham who is now practising medicine in Newcastle.

The research looked at problems of treating the degeneration of the intervertebral discs the soft discs in between the bones of the spine that allow it to bend and flex which can be caused by lifestyle issues such as smoking and obesity. The disease is the most common reason for absence from work, having a serious impact on the productivity of the UK economy.

The discs form the biggest structure within the body which doesn't have its own blood supply, creating issues for the delivery of drugs to the area. To study the way in which drugs may move through the system, the researchers used healthy volunteers and injected them with a dye containing the molecule gadolinium, which is roughly the same size as a drug molecule and has magnetic properties enabling them to follow its progress through the body using an MRI scanner.

They found that the molecule moved across the discs in two ways; by diffusion or by being swept through the disc as water moved in and out of it.

As the discs compress when we stand, squeezing water out, the volunteers were studied in two situations loaded down with half their body weight to simulate the effect of being upright and walking around during daytime hours and lying down unloaded to simulate night time sleep conditions.

The results of the study could help to inform the way in which degeneration of the intervertebral discs is medically managed in the future this could mean injecting drugs directly into the discs or the development of slow-release drug delivery methods. Alternatively, knowing how the drug is moved in and out of the discs could help doctors to control the dosage more effectively and to decide the best time of the day to administer the medicine.

The ISSLS Prize for Lumbar Spine Research will be officially awarded to the research team at an event in Miami from May 4 to 5, when they will also present their paper to an audience of peers. Their work will also be published in a special edition of the scientific journal Spine.


Contact: Dr Donal McNally
University of Nottingham

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