Carolinas HealthCare System
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Grant Leads the Way in Back Pain

Helen Gruber, PhD, Director of Biology Research in Orthopaedic Surgery, recently received a $50,000 grant from the North American Spine Society to carry out research on disc degeneration and low back pain in 2014. In collaboration with Edward Hanley Jr., MD, Chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Carolinas HealthCare System and Jim Norton, PhD, statistician, Dr. Gruber will examine nerve and disc cell biology.

Discovering Novel Therapies

Disk degeneration, the root cause of most episodes of low back pain, is a major healthcare concern that can negatively impact the quality of life of those affected. Approximately 80 percent of Americans will experience symptoms of low back pain at some point in their lifetime. Currently, there is no effective therapy for disk generation, and the initial surgeries have a 15 to 40 percent failure rate.

“Low back pain affects an increasingly large patient population, presenting the need for a novel tyfpe of therapy that will successfully treat this group,” said Dr. Gruber. “The funding from the NASS grant will allows us to gain a better understanding of how we can target, and eventually alleviate, the pain resulting from potentially devastating condition.”

The grant, titled “Do human annulus cells actively try to repel nerve ingrowth into the disc?” will be a part of the physicians' cell-based tissue engineering and regenerative medicine research projects, which have the potential to re-introduce cells into the disc. One of the most widely recognized problems resulting from disc aging and degeneration is the low number of cells contained in the disc, which makes it difficult for the human body to maintain healthy disc tissue.

Dr. Gruber and Dr. Hanley are planning on launching an initial clinical pilot study at Carolinas Medical Center. Dr. Gruber is nationally recognized for her advancements in spine research. In 2012, she received the NASS Henry Farfan award, which recognizes unique and outstanding contributions in spine-related basic science research. She has been both principal- and co-investigator on multiple research grants including a prestigious NIH-funded RO1 award. Her current research efforts focus primarily upon intervertebral disc degeneration and changes in the aging disc.