In vitro and in vivo evaluation of discogenic cells, an investigational cell therapy for disc degeneration

Spine J. 2020 Jan;20(1):138-149. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2019.08.006. Epub 2019 Aug 20.


Background/context: Disc degeneration (DD) is a significant driver of low back pain and few treatments exist to treat the pain and disability associated with the disease.

Purpose: Our group has developed a method to generate therapeutic discogenic cells as a potential treatment for symptomatic DD. These cells are derived and modified from adult nucleus pulposus cells. In this study, we evaluated the characteristics, mode of action, and in vivo efficacy and safety of these cells prior to human clinical testing.

Study design: Privately funded in vitro studies and in vivo preclinical models were used in this study.

Methods: Discogenic cells generated from different adult human donors were evaluated for surface marker expression profile, matrix deposition and tumorigenic potential. Discogenic cells were then injected subcutaneously into nude mice to assess cell survival and possible extracellular matrix production in vivo. Finally, a rabbit model of DD was used to evaluate the therapeutic potential of discogenic cells after disc injury.

Results: We found that discogenic cells have a consistent surface marker profile, are multipotent for mesenchymal lineages, and produce extracellular matrix consisting of aggrecan, collagen 1 and collagen 2. Cells did not show abnormal karyotype after culturing and did not form tumor-like aggregates in soft agar. After subcutaneous implantation in a nude mouse model, the human discogenic cells were found to have generated regions rich with extracellular matrix over the course of 4 months, with no signs of tumorigenicity. Intradiscal injection of human discogenic cells in a rabbit model of DD caused an increase in disc height and improvement of tissue architecture relative to control discs or injection of vehicle alone (no cells) with no signs of toxicity.

Conclusions: This study demonstrates that intradiscal injection of discogenic cells may be a viable treatment for human degenerative disc disease. The cells produce extracellular matrix that may rebuild the depleting tissue within degenerating discs. Also, the cells do not pose any significant safety concerns.

Clinical significance: Human clinical testing of discogenic cells combined with a sodium hyaluronate carrier is ongoing in multiple randomized, controlled, double-blinded studies in the United States ( identifier NCT03347708) and Japan ( identifier NCT03955315).

Keywords: Cell therapy; Disc degeneration; Intervertebral disc; Preclinical models; Regenerative medicine; Stem cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aggrecans / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Collagen / metabolism
  • Extracellular Matrix / metabolism
  • Female
  • HeLa Cells
  • Humans
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / therapy*
  • Male
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cell Transplantation / methods*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Nude
  • Middle Aged
  • Nucleus Pulposus / cytology*
  • Nucleus Pulposus / metabolism
  • Rabbits
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


  • Aggrecans
  • Collagen

Associated data