Low back pain is a major health issue and one main cause to this condition is believed to be intervertebral disc (IVD) degeneration. Stem cell therapy for degenerated discs using mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) has been suggested. The aim of the study was to investigate the presence and distribution pattern of autologous MSCs transplanted into degenerated IVDs in patients and explanted posttransplantation. IVD tissues from four patients (41, 45, 47, and 47 years of age) participating in a clinical feasibility study on MSC transplantation to degenerative discs were investigated. Three patients decided to undergo fusion surgery at time points 8 months and one patient at 28 months posttransplantation. Pretransplantation, MSCs from bone marrow aspirate were isolated by centrifugation in FICOLL® test tubes and cultured (passage 1). Before transplantation, MSCs were labeled with 1 mg/mL iron sucrose (Venofer®) and 1 × 106 MSCs were transplanted into degenerated IVDs. At the time point of surgery, IVD tissues were collected. IVD tissue samples were fixated, embedded in paraffin, and sections prepared. IVD samples were stained with Prussian Blue, by which iron deposits are visualized and examined (light microscopy). Immunohistochemistry (IHC), including SOX9 (sex determining region Y box 9), Coll2A1 (collagen 2A1), and cell viability (TUNEL) were performed. Cells positive for iron deposits were observed in IVD tissues (3/4 patients). The cells/iron deposits were observed in clusters and/or as solitary cells in regions in IVD tissue samples [regions of interest (ROIs)]. By IHC, SOX9- and Coll2A1-positive cells were detected in the same regions as the detected cells/iron deposits. A few nonviable cells were detected by TUNEL assay in ROIs. Results demonstrated that MSCs, labeled with iron sucrose, transplanted into degenerated IVDs were detectable 8 months posttransplantation. The detected cellular activity indicates that MSCs have differentiated into chondrocyte-like cells and that the injected MSCs and/or their progeny have survived since the cells were found in large cluster and as solitary cells which were distributed at different parts of the IVD.
Keywords: cell therapy cell tracer; chondrogenic differentiation; disc degeneration; intervertebral disc; iron sucrose labeling; mesenchymal stem cells.