Old Bones Help Treat Back Pain

27 February 2011

Interview with

Jane Reck, EPSRC; Dr. Ruth Wilcox, Leeds University; Dr. Kate Robson Brown, Bristol University

Kat -   Also in the news this week, scientists have been using old bones to develop new treatments for chronic back pain.  [It's estimated that] 80% of us will suffer from a bad back at some time in our lives, but the condition is hard to treat because the causes of it are so varied.  Now, researchers have come up with a new way of testing out new treatments with a little help from our ancestors, as Jane Reck has been finding out...

Ruth -   The data that we need, we can derive from these older bones.  So, although the bones are old, what we end up with in the model is a simulation of a living spine.

Orientation of the rib cage on the vertebral columnKate -   I, as an anthropologist, am providing access to data and providing access to analytical techniques which are going back, into bio-mechanical engineering.

Jane -   The unlikely combination of old human bones and the latest computer modelling techniques, are being used to develop new ways of treating chronic back pain.  Spines from around 40 skeletons, housed in various museums and anatomy collections are being analysed in the research, which is taking place at the Universities of Leeds and Bristol.  The computer modelling side of the work is led by Dr. Ruth Wilcox at Leeds.

Ruth -   We're using computer models, the same kinds of modelling processes we'd use in aeronautical engineering or in civil engineering to analyse structures, but using those types of principles to model the spine, and to simulate how a treatment would work within a spine.

Jane -   Ruth says, they're carrying out the work using the latest imaging techniques.

Ruth -   Microcomputer tomography scanning is imaging a specimen in three dimensions.  So it's similar to the type of techniques that we have in a hospital called a CAT scan.  In a hospital, a patient is imaged by basically being x-rayed from different angles and then using that to build up a 3D image of the patients.  This works in the same kind of way, but we're doing it at much higher resolution so that we can see the individual strands or struts of bone within the vertebra.  And that data, we then put into our computer models so that our computer model simulates this variation in bone across an individual vertebra but also from one patient to another.

Jane -   The bone remains are being gathered and scanned at the University of Bristol's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology by Dr. Kate Robson Brown.  Kate explains why they're using such old human remains.

Kate -   Most of the time at the moment, we get material from the more elderly sections of the population.  And in order to understand the range of variation within a normal population, we need to have information from younger adult age groups.  By using older collections of dry bone; these are macerated, which means cleaned, dry skeletons from those collections, it allows us to investigate bone morphology in age groups which are not accessible using recently donated material.  One of the skeletons we're looking at is that of an adult female.  She was quite little.  She was around 5'2" when she died.  She was probably in her late 20s or early 30s.  We have her complete skeleton.  This was a skeleton that made it's way into the collection we think in the 1930s, and this particular individual has a very clean, dry skeleton, so there's no evidence of osteoarthritis, there's no evidence of bone cancer, anything like that.  We can't tell from her skeleton what she died of, but it was certainly nothing that is represented on the bones itself.

Jane -   Ruth says, the new computer software will speed up the process of clinical trials, for testing out new treatments for chronic back pain.

Ruth -   The idea by the end of this project is that we'll have these models up and running.  A company could come in with a design for a new product and we could simulate how it would work across this population of different spines, so we could reduce the risk when it does go into the clinic, and prove beforehand that in our computer models, that it's behaving as it should.  The good thing about the computer models is that we can use them over and over again, so we could test lots of different products on the same computer model whereas if we're doing this in the laboratory, then we'd need a new spine, a new donated spine each time we wanted to test the new treatments out.

Jane -   Kate says the work could lead to tailor-made medical treatments and even provide new insights into how our ancestors evolved.

Kate -   It would surely be great if we could be in a position where surgical interventions could be assessed for us as an individual against a model of our own bones.  We're moving in that direction, but research like this is helping to provide the baseline data on which those developments can be made.  One of the really exciting developments that's arising out of this, for me as a Biologic Anthropologist, is being able to apply this type of modelling technique to fossil bones, for which there is no other way of testing them.  So for example, we could take a fossil skeleton that's 3 million years old, scan a vertebra, make a model of it, and actually test some locomotory strategies to see whether that individual in life walked around on two feet or four feet.  That's a major development for evolutionary anthropology.

Jane -   The research is funded by the Engineering in Physical Sciences Research Council, the computer modelling software is the first of it's kind for back conditions.  It should be available for testing out newly developed products and treatments in the next few years.

Kat -   Well, that's making me want to sit up straight with just listening to that.  That was Jane Reck from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Learning From Old Bones - EPRSC Video

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