Bones and silicon

Real Science: Old bones and computers

Back pain university research helped by old bones
BBC, 1st March 2011

Spines from museum and university anatomy collections are being studied.

The bones of people who died up to 100 years ago are being used to develop new treatments for chronic back pain.

The research uses computer modelling techniques devised at Leeds University and archaeology and anthropology expertise at Bristol University.

Spines from 40 skeletons in museums and anatomy collections are being analysed.

Science minister David Willetts said: "It's fascinating that old bones and very new technology can come together to deliver benefits for patients."

'Fantastic' research

The five-year project will receive funding of £1.1m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Data on different spine conditions and on how backbones vary in size and shape are being fed into innovative computer models.

These models will then be used to evaluate the potential impact of new treatments and implant materials, such as keyhole spinal surgery and artificial disk replacements, before they are used in patients.

Researchers hope that ultimately the models could be used to pinpoint the type of treatment best suited to an individual patient.

Mr Willetts said: "Back pain is an extremely common condition, but everyone has a slightly different spine so developing new treatments can be a real challenge.

"This investment could significantly improve quality of life for millions of people around the world, so it's fantastic that the research is being carried out in the UK."

Faster trials

It is the first software of its kind to be designed for the treatment of back conditions.

The research will also speed up the process of clinical trials for new treatments, which currently take up to 10 years.

Project leader Dr Ruth Wilcox, from the University of Leeds, said: "The idea is that a company will be able to come in with a design for a new product and we will simulate how it would work on different spines.

"The good thing about computer models is that we can use them over and over again, so we can test lots of different products on the same model.

"If we were doing this in a laboratory we would need many new donated spines each time we wanted to test a treatment out."