Biological Systems Engineering


Date of this Version



Published in The Spine Journal 17 (2017), pp. 435–444.
doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2016.10.022


© 2016 Elsevier Inc. Used by permission.


Background Context: Disc degeneration is the leading cause of low back pain and is often characterized by a loss of disc height, resulting from cleavage of chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans (CSPGs) present in the nucleus pulposus. Intact CSPGs are critical to water retention and maintenance of the nucleus osmotic pressure. Decellularization of healthy nucleus pulposus tissue has the potential to serve as an ideal matrix for tissue engineering of the disc because of the presence of native disc proteins and CSPGs. Injectable in situ gelling matrices are the most viable therapeutic option to prevent damage to the anulus fibrosus and future disc degeneration.

Purpose: The purpose of this research was to create a gentle decellularization method for use on healthy nucleus pulposus tissue explants and to develop an injectable formulation of this matrix to enable therapeutic use without substantial tissue disruption.

Study Design: Porcine nuclei pulposi were isolated, decellularized, and solubilized. Samples were assessed to determine the degree of cell removal, matrix maintenance, gelation ability, cytotoxic residuals, and native cell viability.

Methods: Nuclei pulposi were decellularized using serial detergent, buffer, and enzyme treatments. Decellularized nuclei pulposi were solubilized, neutralized, and buffered. The efficacy of decellularization was assessed by quantifying DNA removal and matrix preservation. An elution study was performed to confirm removal of cytotoxic residuals. Gelation kinetics and injectability were quantified. Long-term in vitro experiments were performed with nucleus pulposus cells to ensure cell viability and native matrix production within the injectable decellularized nucleus pulposus matrices.

Results: This work resulted in the creation of a robust acellular matrix (>96% DNA removal) with highly preserved sulfated glycosaminoglycans (>47%), and collagen content and microstructure similar to native nucleus pulposus, indicating preservation of disc components. Furthermore, it was possible to create an injectable formulation that gelled in situ within 45 minutes and formed fibrillar collagen with similar diameters to native nucleus pulposus. The processing did not result in any remaining cytotoxic residuals. Solubilized decellularized nucleus pulposus samples seeded with nucleus pulposus cells maintained robust viability (>89%) up to 21 days of culture in vitro, with morphology similar to native nucleus pulposus cells, and exhibited significantly enhanced sulfated glycosaminoglycans production over 21 days.

Conclusions: A gentle decellularization of porcine nucleus pulposus followed by solubilization enabled the creation of an injectable tissue-specific matrix that is well tolerated in vitro by nucleus pulposus cells. These matrices have the potential to be used as a minimally invasive nucleus pulposus therapeutic to restore disc height.