Carolinas HealthCare System

Orthopedic Researchers Receive Prestigious Grant to Fund Novel Spine Research

Helen Gruber, PhD

Helen Gruber, PhD
Director of Biology Research
in Orthopaedic Surgery

A team of researchers at Carolinas HealthCare System received a $50,000 grant from the North American Spine Society (NASS) to research disc degeneration and low back pain.

Helen Gruber, PhD, Carolinas HealthCare System’s director of Biology Research in Orthopaedic Surgery, is the lead investigator. She will collaborate with Edward N. Hanley, MD, chairman of the department of orthopaedic surgery at Carolinas HealthCare System, and Jim Norton, PhD, statistician, nerve and disc cell biology.

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

Disc 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. About 80 percent of Americans will experience symptoms of low back pain at some point in their lifetime. Currently, there is no effective therapy for disc generation, and initial surgeries have a 15 to 40 percent failure rate.

Edward N. Hanley, MD

Edward N. Hanley, MD
Chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery

The grant, titled “Do Human Annulus Cells Actively Try to Repel Nerve Ingrowth into the Disc?” will be a part of cell-based tissue engineering and regenerative medicine research project with the potential to re-introduce cells into the disc. The low number of cells contained in a disc is one of the most widely recognized problems resulting from disc aging and degeneration, which makes it difficult for the human body to maintain healthy disc tissue. Drs. Gruber and Hanley are planning on launching an initial clinical pilot study at Carolinas Medical Center.

Dr. Gruber has been 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 National Institutes of Health-Funded RO1 Award. Her current research efforts focus primarily upon intervertebral disc degeneration and changes in the aging disc.

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