Oct 12 2009 Posted: 00:00 IST
Significant new funding from the AO Foundation in Switzerland will allow scientists at NUI Galway to pursue an innovative research strategy to help combat back pain. The strategy is based on mapping highly specific cell surface markers called glycans, to allow better differentiation between diseased and healthy tissue in the spine. By mapping these patterns, it is hoped that medical professionals will be able to distinguish different cell types with a high degree of specificity and target treatment accordingly. The AO Foundation promotes and supports research and development into the regeneration of intervertebral disc damage (IDD) which is the primary cause of lower back pain. Back pain is a predominant cause of disability and is particularly prevalent among 30-50 year olds, though it is more severe among older patients. It has emerged as the most expensive healthcare problem in the US, with reported annual costs of up to $100 billion. Professor Abhay Pandit is Director of the Network of Excellence for Functional Biomaterials (NFB) at NUI Galway and has been developing biomaterial based therapeutic delivery systems for treatment of IDD for several years. He explains the challenge at hand: "You could think of the discs in the spine as being made up of an outer doughnut shaped ring of hard tissue. In the centre of each disc is a soft jelly-like material called the nucleus pulposus, or at least in healthy discs it is soft. With age and disease, the centre can harden, leaving it almost impossible to differentiate the nucleus pulposus tissue from the outer shell tissue of the disc. This makes degenerated nucleus pulposus tissue difficult to identify and therefore treatment is severely limited". Professor Lokesh Joshi leads the Glycosciences and Glycotechnology Research Group (GGRG) at NUI Galway which focuses on cutting-edge research surrounding complex sugars or glycans. While many studies around the world have investigated changes at a genetic level in the nucleus pulposus tissue, few distinguishing features have emerged. Now researchers from the GGRG and the NFB at NUI Galway will go beyond genetics, to track the glycans in cells of the nucleus pulposus which may provide indicators for healthy or degenerated tissues. Professors Joshi concludes: "This research programme further supports the strategy of innovation and convergence in Irish research and reinforces the financial commitment of the AO Foundation to research carried out at NUI Galway". NFB is a strategic research cluster funded by Science Foundation Ireland.