Learning from old bones to treat modern back pain podcast

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The bones of people who died up to a hundred years ago are being used in the development of new treatments for chronic back pain. It is the first time old bones have been used in this way.

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Dr Ruth Wilcox - Leeds University [RW]

The data that we need we can derive from these older bones. So although the bones are old, what we end up with in the model is a simulation of a living spine.

Dr Kate Robson Brown - Bristol University [KRB]

I, as an anthropologist, am providing access to data and providing access to analytical techniques which are going back into biomechanical engineering.

[Narrator]

The unlikely combination of old human bones and the latest computer modelling techniques, are being used to develop new ways of treating chronic back pain. Spines from around forty skeletons, housed in various museums and anatomy collections, are being analysed in the research which is taking place at the Universities of Leeds and Bristol. The computer modelling side of the work is led by Dr Ruth Wilcox at Leeds.

[RW]

We're using computer models, the same kinds of modelling processes as we would use in aeronautical engineering or in civil engineering, to analyse structures but using those types of principles to model the spine and to simulate how a treatment would work within the spine.

[Narrator]

Ruth says they're carrying out the work using the latest imaging techniques.

[RW]

Microcomputer tomography scanning is imaging a specimen in three dimensions so it's similar to the type of techniques that we have in a hospital called a cat scan. In a hospital, a patient is imaged by basically being x-rayed from different angles and then using that to build up a 3D image of the patients. This works in a same kind of way but we're doing it at a much higher resolution so that we can see the individual strands or struts of bone within the vertebrae. And that data we then put into our computer models so that our computer model simulates this variation in bone across an individual vertebrae but also from one patient to another.

[Narrator]

The bone remains are being gathered and scanned at the University of Bristol's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology by Dr Kate Robson Brown. Kate explains why they are using such old human remains.

[KRB]

Most of the time, at the moment, we get the material from the more elderly sections of the population. And in order to understand the range of variation within a normal population, we need to have information from younger adult age groups. By using older collections of dry bone, and these are macerated which means cleaned, dry skeletons, it allows us to investigate bone morphology in age groups which are not accessible using recently donated material. One of the skeletons we're looking at is that of an adult female. She was quite little. She was around 5'2" when she died and she was probably in her late twenties or early thirties. We have her complete skeleton. This was a skeleton that made its way into the collection we think in the 1930's and this particular individual has a very clean dry skeleton so there is no evidence of osteoarthritis, bone cancer or anything like that. We can't tell from her skeleton what she died of, but it was certainly nothing that is represented on the bones itself.

[Narrator]

Ruth says the new computer software will speed up the process of clinical trails for testing out new treatments for chronic back pain.

[RW]

The idea is that by the end of this project we will have these models up and running. A company could come in with a design for a new product and we can simulate how it would work across this population of different spines. So we can reduce the risk when it does go into clinic and prove beforehand that in our computer models that it is behaving as it should. The good thing about the computer models is that we can use them over and over again so we could test lots of different products on the same computer model. Whereas if we were doing this in the laboratory, then we would need a new spine, a new donated spine, each time we wanted to test a new treatment out.

[Narrator]

Kate says the work could lead to tailor-made medical treatments and even provide new insight into how our ancestors evolved.

[KRB]

It would surely be great if we could be in a position where surgical interventions could be assessed for us as an individual against a model of our own bones. We're moving in that direction but research like this is helping to provide the baseline data on which those developments can be made. One of the really exciting developments that's arising out of this, for me as a Biological Anthropologist, is being able to apply this type of modelling technique to fossil bones, for which there is no other way of testing them. So, for example, we can take a fossil skeleton that is three million years old, scan a vertebrae, make a model of it and actually test some locomotory strategies to see whether that individual in life walked around on two feet or four feet and that's a major development for evolutionary anthropology.

[Narrator]

The research is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The computer modelling software is the first of its kind for back conditions. It should be available for testing out newly developed products and treatments in the next few years.