Mark A. Philbrick, Brigham Young University
Engineering professors Anton Bowden and Larry Howell from Brigham Young University insert the newly developed disc replacement into a cadaver to test functionality.

A team of engineering professors — Anton Bowden, Larry Howell and Peter Halverson from Brigham Young University — has developed an artificial spinal disc replacement that treats chronic low back pain.

Up to 80 percent of people will experience low back pain at some point in their lives and as many as 15 percent of people will experience chronic low back pain that will necessitate surgery, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). Costs of low back pain in the U.S. exceed $100 billion every year, according to a 2006 estimate in the Journal of Bone ang Joint Surgery.

Spinal movement is facilitated by a column that supports about half the weight of the body, held together by 23 cartridge-filled discs stacked on top of each other. When spinal discs degenerate, or herniate, chronic back pain results.

Today, spinal fusion surgery is the standard treatment of chronic back pain. This procedure involves adding a bone graft to an area of the spine that debilitates motion at that segment. An often painful and costly process that 54 percent of patients rated as unsatisfactory, according to ConsumerReports.org, this new biomedical devise offers a new alternative.

“Low back pain has been described as the most severe pain you can experience that won’t kill you,” Bowden, a BYU biomechanics and spine expert, said in a news release. “This device has the potential to alleviate that pain and restore the natural motion of the spine — something current procedures can’t replicate.”

As a leading expert in compliant mechanism research, Howell has designed the disc to mimic the elasticity of tweezers, fingernail clippers or a bow and arrow. This jointless mechanism is flexible to the movement of the spinal structure it supports.

The disc was placed in a prototype created by BYU engineer students following directions by Howell and Bowden. "We put it in a cadaver spine to test it on the machine, to see how it will work on an actual human spine," Howell told the Deseret News. The disc tested as functional as a healthy disc would be. "It is really rewarding to work with students, and our hope is that we will be able to help a lot of people."

Licensed from BYU to Crocker Spinal Technologies, a Utah biomedical company, it is anticipated that international sales distribution of the disc will begin next year. Gary Crocker, a member of BYU President's Leadership Council and founder of Crocker Spinal Technologies, and BYU MBA graduate David Hawkes are working closely with the professors to develop and market the disc. BYU Ph.D. graduate Halverson has joined their team.

“BYU’s innovation is a radical step forward in the advancement of disc replacement technology. It is exciting to be a part of this effort and a delight to work with such talented, wonderful people," Hawkes said in a university release.

Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News.