Damaged spinal discs cause a great deal of trouble for people with chronic back
problems, and a burden on the economy due to absenteeism from work and financial
costs of treatment.
Sufferers are told to rest, take analgesics and – if
these don’t help – undergo operations, but these are not always fully effective.
One-tenth of people suffering from degenerated discs suffer from longterm pain
But some scientists are trying to find ways to alleviate
the problem of damaged discs. Dr. Sarit Sivan of the Technion- Israel Institute
of Technology’s biomedical faculty is one of the three winners of the European
Commission’s new Marie Curie Prize for outstanding achievement in spinal disc
research, announced today at a ceremony in Nicosia, Cyprus. She won the prize in
the “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” category.
Sivan was selected for
her work on materials that can restore the biomechanical function of degenerated
discs in spinal columns. Disc degeneration caused by the gradual loss of some of
their main components, mainly due to aging, leads to a decrease in biomechanical
function affecting the spine. During her Marie Curie fellowship at the
University of Oxford in the UK, Sivan developed and successfully tested
biocompatible gel-like materials that could replace, through a non-invasive
injection, the lost disc components and mimic their functioning.
discs are made of collagen, water and proteins called proteoglycans; when the
discs begin to degenerate, the amounts of proteoglycans and water decline and
the damaged disc moves down lower, causing it to rub against others. This makes
blood vessels and nerves enter the collagen, resulting in pain that increases as
the disc becomes more diseased. A biological approach to fixing discs faced
problems because calcification of the disc makes it difficult for collagen cells
to survive, which results in the blockage of access of nutrients to the cells
and the removal of waste.
A potential solution, suggested Sivan, would be
rigid, synthetic discs with properties similar to natural ones. However,
inserting them by cutting the collagen ring that binds to the spine can lead to
the disc’s expulsion due to body weight.
Sivan developed synthetic
injectable material that overcomes this problem and can cope with weight the
same way natural tissue does.
The judges’ panel praised Sivan’s
scientific expertise, innovation, entrepreneurial approach and her ability to
exploit basic science findings commercially. She developed multiple innovations,
has an impressive number of patents and contributed to the creation of a company
currently running clinical trials on related research.
The other two
winners were Dr. Gkikas Magiorkinis from Greece, in the “Promising Research
Talent” category, honored for his work on tracing how the Hepatitis C virus has
spread around the world, and Dr Claire Belcher from the UK for “Communicating
Science,” for her study of the Earth’s geological past and its impact on plant
and animal life – a subject she has brought to wider attention through regular
appearances on TV and in other media.
RANDOM HEALTH SCREENING AND
Carrying out general health checks does not reduce deaths overall or
from serious diseases like cancer and heart disease, according to researchers at
the Cochrane Library, a collection of independent databases in medicine and
other healthcare specialties that summarize and interpret the results of medical
In some countries, general health checks are offered as part of
standard practice with the aim of reducing deaths and ill health by enabling
early detection and treatment of disease. However, there are potential negative
implications – for example, diagnosis and treatment of conditions that might
never have led to any symptoms of disease or shortened life.
researchers based their findings on 14 trials involving 182,880 people. In nine
of them, with a total of 11,940 deaths, the researchers found no difference
between the number of deaths in the two groups (those who had undergone health
checks and those who hadn’t) in the long term, either overall or specifically
due to cancer or heart disease.
Other outcomes were poorly studied, but
suggested that offering general health checks has no impact on hospital
admissions, disability, worry, specialist referrals, additional visits to
doctors or time off work.
“From the evidence we’ve seen, inviting
patients to general health checks is unlikely to be beneficial,” said lead
researcher Lasse Krogsbøll of the Nordic Cochrane Center in
“One reason for this might be that doctors identify
additional problems and take action when they see patients for other
“What we’re not saying is that doctors should stop carrying out
tests or offering treatment when they suspect there may be a problem. But we do
think that public healthcare initiatives that are systematically offering
general health checks should be resisted.”
According to the review, new
studies should be focused on the individual components of health checks and
better targeting of conditions such as kidney disease and diabetes. They should
be designed to further explore the harmful effects of general health checks,
which are often ignored, producing misleading conclusions about the balance of
benefits and harm. Another problem is that those people who attend health checks
when invited may be different from those who do not. People who are at a high
risk of serious illness may be less likely to attend.
Asked to comment,
Prof. Manfred Green, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of
Haifa, said, “The paper is very interesting and actually corroborates a lot of
what some of us in public health have been saying for a long time. The findings
also match much of the substance in the recommendations of the American Task
Force for Preventive Services. Basically they say that ‘random’ regular general
check-ups have little value, unless they are strictly targeted toward procedures
that have reasonable evidence of efficacy.”