February 8, 1997

Media Contacts: Sarah Goodwin, 404/727-3366 - sgoodwi@emory.edu
Kathi Ovnic, 404/727-9371 - covnic@emory.edu

A protein that helps to make bone may soon help back patients avoid a painful and sometimes risky procedure.

When a person's lower back is painfully injured, surgeons can fuse the spine to relieve the pressure. About 200,000 patients each year in the United States undergo this operation, but it fails -- for no apparent reason -- in as many as a third of the patients.

Part of the problem is that to fuse the spine, surgeons take a piece of the patient's own pelvic bone and fuse it to the dislodged or degenerated bones in the patient's spinal column. But that carries its own risks. The process itself is painful, and the patient can lose blood during the operation and can be left with chronic hip pain. Some patients decide to try again, but the odds are no better in a second operation.

To increase the patient's odds of successfully recovering, physicians at Emory University are beginning clinical trials on a new treatment that avoids using pelvic bone for the fusion. The experimental treatment involves using one of the body's own tools to grow bone, a protein called bone morphogenetic protein, or BMP. In animal experiments, Emory researchers, led by orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Scott Boden, found that they could use BMP to grow new bone and fuse the spine.

"We're trying to get the human body to make bone. In many instances, the body doesn't come through on its own as often as we'd like," Boden said. "We're trying to harness the body's own power to generate bones to order."

In January, the federal Food and Drug Administration gave Emory approval to test BMP in patients with degenerative disks and chronic back pain. The treatment involves filling a cylindrical cage of titanium with a BMP-soaked sponge and implanting the cage in the spine where new bone is needed. The BMP attracts bone to grow through the cage and eventually, the new bone surrounds the implanted titanium cage.

"The exciting thing about BMP is not only does it eliminate all the problems associated with taking the patient's own bone, but it has the potential to do better," Boden said.

Emory, University of Wisconsin and UCLA are each testing the protein-filled cage in four patients before expanding the study to several hundred patients.

"We're going to be in a position to be able to make bone safely and consistently," Boden said. "This means the potential for faster recovery, better results, less hospitalization and lower costs for eligible patients with low back pain."

For more general information on The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center, call Health Sciences News and Information at 404-727-5686, or send e-mail to hsnews@emory.edu.

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