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Eur Spine J. 2012 May;21 Suppl 1:S10-9. doi: 10.1007/s00586-012-2234-y. Epub 2012 Mar 7.

Ex vivo observation of human intervertebral disc tissue and cells isolated from degenerated intervertebral discs.

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Laboratory for Orthopaedic Pathophysiology and Regenerative Medicine, Istituto Ortopedico Rizzoli, via di Barbiano 1/10, 40136 Bologna, Italy.



Disc degeneration, and associated low back pain, are a primary cause of disability. Disc degeneration is characterized by dysfunctional cells and loss of proteoglycans: since intervertebral tissue has a limited capacity to regenerate, this process is at present considered irreversible. Recently, cell therapy has been suggested to provide more successful treatment of IVD degeneration. To understand the potential of cells to restore IVD structure/function, tissue samples from degenerated IVD versus healthy discs have been compared.


Discal tissue from 27 patients (40.17 ± 11 years) undergoing surgery for degenerative disc disease (DDD), DDD + herniation and congenital scoliosis, as controls, was investigated. Cells and matrix in the nucleus pulposus (NP) and annulus fibrosus (AF) were characterized by histology. AF- and NP-derived cells were isolated, expanded and characterized for senescence and gene expression. Three-dimensional NP pellets were cultured and stained for glycosaminoglycan formation.


Phenotypical markers of degeneration, such as cell clusters, chondrons, and collagen disorganization were seen in the degenerate samples. In severe degeneration, granulation tissue and peripheral vascularization were observed. No correlation was found between the Pfirrmann clinical score and the extent of degeneration.


The tissue disorganization in degenerate discs and the paucity of cells out of cluster/chondron association, make the IVD-derived cells an unreliable option for disc regeneration.

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