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Organ Culture Bioreactors – Platforms to Study Human Intervertebral Disc Degeneration and Regenerative Therapy

[ Vol. 10 , Issue. 4 ]


Benjamin Gantenbein, Svenja Illien-Jünger, Samantha CW Chan, Jochen Walser, Lisbet Haglund, Stephen J. Ferguson, James C. Iatridis and Sibylle Grad   Pages 339 - 352 ( 14 )


In recent decades the application of bioreactors has revolutionized the concept of culturing tissues and organs that require mechanical loading. In intervertebral disc (IVD) research, collaborative efforts of biomedical engineering, biology and mechatronics have led to the innovation of new loading devices that can maintain viable IVD organ explants from large animals and human cadavers in precisely defined nutritional and mechanical environments over extended culture periods. Particularly in spine and IVD research, these organ culture models offer appealing alternatives, as large bipedal animal models with naturally occurring IVD degeneration and a genetic background similar to the human condition do not exist. Latest research has demonstrated important concepts including the potential of homing of mesenchymal stem cells to nutritionally or mechanically stressed IVDs, and the regenerative potential of “smart” biomaterials for nucleus pulposus or annulus fibrosus repair. In this review, we summarize the current knowledge about cell therapy, injection of cytokines and short peptides to rescue the degenerating IVD. We further stress that most bioreactor systems simplify the real in vivo conditions providing a useful proof of concept. Limitations are that certain aspects of the immune host response and pain assessments cannot be addressed with ex vivo systems. Coccygeal animal disc models are commonly used because of their availability and similarity to human IVDs. Although in vitro loading environments are not identical to the human in vivo situation, 3D ex vivo organ culture models of large animal coccygeal and human lumbar IVDs should be seen as valid alternatives for screening and feasibility testing to augment existing small animal, large animal, and human clinical trial experiments.


Bioreactor, cell viability, mechanical loading, intervertebral disc, mesenchymal stem cell, torsional loading, engineering, nutrition.


Institute for Surgical Technology & Biomechanics, Medical Faculty, University, Stauffacherstrasse 78, CH-3014 Bern, Switzerland;

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