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BYU engineers conceive disc replacement to treat chronic low back pain

Technology licensed by BYU to Utah-based Crocker Spinal Technologies

In between the vertebrae of the human spine are 23 Oreo-sized, cartilage-filled discs that hold the vertebrae together and allow for spine movement.

While the discs are critical for movement, they can become the source of back pain when they degenerate or herniate – a major health problem that affects 85% of Americans and drains the U.S. economy to the tune of $100 billion every year.

A new biomedical device to surgically treat chronic back pain – an artificial spinal disc that duplicates the natural motion of the spine – has been licensed from Brigham Young University to a Utah-based company.

The artificial disc was conceived by engineering professors Anton Bowden and Larry Howell and BYU alum Peter Halverson. It will be developed to market by Crocker Spinal Technologies, a company founded by BYU President’s Leadership Council member Gary Crocker and headed by BYU MBA graduate David Hawkes.

The BYU researchers report on the mechanism’s ability to facilitate natural spine movement in a study published in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Spine Surgery.

“Low back pain has been described as the most severe pain you can experience that won’t kill you,” said Bowden, a BYU biomechanics and spine expert. “This device has the potential to alleviate that pain and restore the natural motion of the spine – something current procedures can’t replicate.”

Currently, the most common surgical treatment for chronic low back pain is spinal fusion surgery. Fusion replaces the degenerative disc with bone in order to fuse the adjacent segments to prevent motion-generated pain.

Unfortunately, patient satisfaction with fusion surgery is less than 50 percent.

The solution researched by the BYU team, and now being developed by Crocker Spinal Technologies, consists of a compliant mechanism that facilitates natural spine movement and is aimed at restoring the function of a healthy spinal disc.

Compliant mechanisms are jointless, elastic structures that use flexibility to create movement. Examples include tweezers, fingernail clippers or a bow-and-arrow. Howell is a leading expert in compliant mechanism research.

“To mimic the response of the spine is very difficult because of the constrained space and the sophistication of the spine and its parts,” Howell said. “A compliant mechanism is more human-like, more natural, and the one we’ve created behaves like a healthy disc.”

Under Howell’s and Bowden’s tutelage, BYU student-engineers built prototypes, machine tested the disc and then tested the device in cadaveric spines. The test results show the artificial replacement disc behaves similarly to a healthy human disc.

“Putting it in a cadaver and having it do what we engineered it do was really rewarding,” Howell said. “It has a lot of promise for eventually making a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”

Halverson, who was lead author on the International Journal of Spine Surgery study, has since earned his Ph.D. from BYU and taken a position at Crocker Spinal Technologies, which will likely begin international sales distribution as early as next year.

“Fusion, which is the current standard of care for back pain, leaves a lot to be desired,” said Hawkes, president of Crocker Spinal Technologies. “Disc replacement is an emerging alternative to fusion that has the potential to make a significant difference in the lives of millions.

“BYU’s innovation is a radical step forward in the advancement of disc replacement technology. It is exciting to be a part of this effort and a delight to work with such talented, wonderful people,” he said.

 

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Amazing
  6/14/2012 2:08 PM by Anne

This sounds amazing! You need to use Dr. Ward Reese as a test study and fix his back! He is one BYU's finest professors and deserves a pain-free back.

Read the scholarly article for the complete story
  6/13/2012 6:00 PM by Mark

The article by Drs. Halverson, Bowden, & Howell can be found at http://download.journals.elsevierhealth.com/pdfs/journals/2211-4599/PIIS2211459912000124.pdf (free access if on campus - thanks HBLL). I highly recommend reading it as this is a very positive advancement of existing total disc replacement (TDR) technology. @Christine - this particular product is years (at best) from medical use. The fact that current TDR devices have shown no significant improvement over spinal fusion (both hover around 50% "success") means that this type of work is critically important and hopefully will be an answer to many peoples prayers. For more info on the current status of TDR vs. fusion search for a paper by K. D. van den Eerenbeemt from 2010. Look it up in the Web of Science & you can see who has cited it since then for the most current research.

2.5 Years too Late
  6/13/2012 9:43 AM by Amberly

I had a spinal fusion surgery 2.5 years ago putting two 16 inch rods and 20 screws in my back and I am really grateful for what it has done for me. However twisting and turning is difficult, this new technology would be amazing!

Extra Vertebra
  6/13/2012 8:48 AM by Kimberly

I was born with an extra vertebra in my back. You're supposed to have 5 lumbar vertebrae, I have six. There is no disc between my 5th and 6th. I wonder if this could help me. In a way, I feel lucky. Since I was born this way, I don't know any different and can probably tolerate the pain more than if the disc had degenerated over time. My doctor is always telling me I seem to have a high pain tolerance. :)

Availability?
  6/13/2012 8:20 AM by Christine

This sounds like an answer to prayer. When will it be available to patients? The insurance question is a valid one....will DMBA cover this?

Insurance
  6/13/2012 1:51 AM by Trevor

I heard that in the U.S. not really any insurance companies are covering artificial disc replacements. will that likely change in the near future?


Click here to download
Mechanical engineering professors Anton Bowden (left) and Larry Howell (right) conceived a spine disc replacement that mimics a healthy disc.

Click here to download
A prototype of the artificial spine disc replacement conceived by BYU researchers.

Click here to download
Mechanical engineering professors Anton Bowden (left) and Larry Howell (right) conceived a spine disc replacement that mimics a healthy disc.

Click here to download
A prototype of the artificial spine disc replacement conceived by BYU researchers.

Click here to download
Mechanical engineering professors Anton Bowden (left) and Larry Howell (right) conceived a spine disc replacement that mimics a healthy disc.

Click here to download
A prototype of the artificial spine disc replacement conceived by BYU researchers.
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