A low back pain gene? A study this last week reported that a gene had been identified that was linked to low back pain. In particular, the gene seems to be related to patients who have low back discs that degenerate more quickly. In addition, the bad backs are linked to a form of the gene that is switched off, meaning that epigentic factors (things in the environment) could be causing the problem. What does that have to do with stem cells? If you look up the normal function of the gene, it gets more interesting in how or why it may be associated with bad discs. The Park2 gene (aka Parkin) is involved in getting rid of worn out of badly produced proteins. The gene is also responsible for keeping cells healthy and when functional, protects nerve cells (hence a possible reason it’s associated with Parkinson’s).
So how in the world could this gene be linked to discs that degenerate faster? Disc degeneration is a game of keeping the cells inside the disc alive and functioning so they can produce special chemicals (called GAGs) that hold onto water and allow the disc to remain a good shock absorber. Degeneration has also been recently been linked to complex interplay of nerve related inflammation, so it;s possible that a good Park2 gene can either help protect these nerve cells or the cells inside the disc that produce GAGs to keep it plumped up. This has an implication for cellular therapies, as activating a turned off Park2 gene may be needed for long term success of repopulating the disc with cells that can hold onto water.
The upshot? Something is turning off this gene in patients with bad discs….now the question is what and how to turn the genetic switch back on? If you’re wondering about the illustration above, it’s the Park2 gene superimposed on a low back…so much for a little artistic license!