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Tom Hedman and new UK research team work on low back pain treatment
For anyone who has suffered a long-term, chronic ailment like low back pain, a simple cure such as a shot in the back sounds like a miracle. You should know that University of Kentucky researcher Tom Hedman is working on just that—a miracle medical device that will alleviate and prevent future back pain for more than 15 million Americans annually.
This miraculous treatment will come in the form of NEXT, a one-time spinal injection developed by Orthopeutics/Intralink Spine using Hedman's research. Hedman comes to UK from Texas A&M and will hold joint appointments in the UK neurosurgery and biomedical engineering departments as he sets up a new lab to expand his research. Orthopeutics/Intralink Spine, a biotechnology company, also moved with Hedman from Texas to UK's Coldstream Research Campus to manufacture the chemical reagent that permanently stabilizes the spine, relieving pain and pressure without surgery, recovery time or missed work, which costs America $100 billion every year.
"The implications of this treatment are just dramatic," said Hedman who has 25 years experience in spinal research and 30 issued or pending patents. "You have four out of five people who will have a serious episode of back pain in their lifetime. At any particular time about 30 percent of people will have low back pain. It is a huge problem that is poorly addressed by health care today."
Hedman and his team diverged from new and emerging treatments that biologically engineer parts of the body to take a path less traveled, pursuing a biomimetic approach. How does it work? Twelve years in the making, Hedman's research imitates the body's own function and design. He describes it as "humbling" himself to the body, realizing that trying to recreate the body's tissue would yield years of research and no remedy. Instead his team studied the natural processes of the body and found a chemical that would speed up the body's natural behaviors and do in just a few minutes what the body could do over a period of decades.
"As a scientist you look for applications where your research efforts can meet a need in your lifetime," Hedman said of the project, which is now ready for clinical trials. "I can see my research benefiting people in my lifetime."
Hedman intends to bring Phil Tibbs, chair of UK's Department of Neurosurgery, to Malaysia where they will initiate the clinical trials process for the medical device.
Hedman will partner with UK faculty and graduate students to explore other applications for the NEXT technology. They are looking at using the NEXT technology to repair knee meniscus tears. This new technology has the potential to stabilize the joint, increase its durability and strength and prevent the progression of deterioration. Of the 200,000 people who undergo knee replacement surgery every year, Hedman said most have first experienced a failure of the knee meniscus. "One million people yearly have this injury and there is no good procedure for repair," he said.
Another application that drew Hedman and his company from Texas to Kentucky is equine medicine. The team believes their treatment could be used to halt some forms of spinal degeneration including Wobbler Syndrome and treat injuries in the stifle joint in the horse's leg which is similar to the human knee. Hedman is looking forward to working with Dr. James MacLeod in equine medicine at UK and other veterinarians on a hybrid treatment using the NEXT technology alongside a biological treatment to provide an instant and long-term solution to the problems that often end a horse's life or viability. "These animals are very valuable to their owners," Hedman said. "They can be worth dollars and a simple orthopedic problem can put a horse out of service."