Fat taken from the stomach is being tested as a new way to treat painful backs.
Surgeons are injecting cells taken from the fat into the discs in the spine - damaged discs are one of the most common causes of chronic back pain.
The fat stored around the middle is rich in stem cells, which have the ability to develop into different types of tissue, and the theory is that injecting them into the spine will help repair the discs.
Around one in four people will suffer disc problems at some time in their lives.
The discs work as shock absorbers to cushion the spine during movement, but also allow flexibility as they prevent the bones of the spine from rubbing together.
Discs have a tough outer layer but a moist, gel-like middle. After the age of 30 or so, the outer hard casing becomes stiff and more likely to crack, and the gel-like inner section starts to lose some of its water content.
The discs continue to degenerate, which means they provide less cushioning for the spine and also are more prone to pushing out of position or herniating. This can put pressure on nerves in the back, causing pain in the back, arms or legs.
Painkillers and physiotherapy can control discomfort. There are surgical options, too, such as fusing the discs together or replacing problem discs.
The new treatment is different, as its designed to repair any damage and protect against future degeneration.
It involves first taking fat from the patients abdomen using liposuction. This can be done under local anaesthetic. Around 100 millilitres of fat is removed.
Until recently fat like this was discarded as surgical waste, but it is now known to contain many types of cells, including stem cells.
These adult stem cells are known as progenitor cells, which means they do nothing until activated by tissue injury.
The theory behind this new treatment is that the stem cells will be attracted to areas of damage and start repairing them.
Stem cells can be obtained from bone marrow, too, but extracting them involves an uncomfortable procedure which yields only 5,000 to 60,000 cells. A 20-minute liposuction session from the abdomen can harvest 40 million cells.
The stem cells are extracted from the fat in a laboratory and can then be injected into the damaged discs.
When researchers at the Mayo Clinic in the U.S. tested it on animals, they found that the height of the discs improved by 26 per cent compared with those injected with a placebo. In addition, the water content of the inner section of the disc improved. A higher water content helps keep the gel-like middle moist and better at cushioning the spine from damage.
The treatment is being tested on 100 patients at three centres in the U.S., including Flower Hospital in Texas. The patients will be monitored over the next few months. Jane Tadman, from Arthritis Research UK, says stem cells offer a promising source of cells with which to treat degenerative disc disease.
Were currently carrying out some interesting laboratory-based research to determine which is the more suitable source of stem cells bone marrow or fat to repair degenerated intervertebral discs.
The U.S. team performing this clinical trial clearly think that stem cells from fat tissue have greater potential than those from bone marrow, so it will be interesting to see the outcome of this new study.