Can Senolytics Improve Back Pain and Disc Health?

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Can a drug cocktail help degenerated discs? The idea is that by using “senolytic” drugs, you can reduce the number of older and bad cells in a degenerated disc, and thus help the condition. Let’s review a recent animal study and also discuss why this data is being a bit overhyped at this point.

A New Headline

In the science news this week, this was one of the headlines:

“Drug cocktail reduces aging-associated disc degeneration”

To understand what happened in this new study, we need to explore senolytic drugs and the differences between rat discs and human discs.

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What is a Senolytic Drug?

A senolytic drug (or supplement) is one that’s believed to reduce human aging (1). There are no FDA-approved drugs for this indication yet, so these are typically existing drugs and supplements that have been shown to do things like getting rid of aging cells faster, help aging cells perform better, or reduce age-related inflammation. Perhaps the most well studied of these to date is the type 2 diabetes drug called Metformin. There is now a long list of drugs and supplements that we suspect are senolytic (this is a very short list):

  • Fistein
  • Melatonin
  • Quercitin
  • Metformin
  • Resveratrol
  • Rapamycin
  • Curcumin

There are also a bunch of experimental drugs in this category that are tough to source. Also, some of these senolytic drugs like Dasatinib and Ruxolitinib are cancer chemotherapy drugs that have their own set of side effects.

The New Study Results

In this new study, scientists fed mice dasatinib and quercetin (2). They measured the age-related disc degeneration and the number of aged and less functional cells in their discs relative to a group that got a placebo. They did find less degenerative disc disease in the mice on the senolytic drugs and fewer senolytic cells in their discs when compared to a group fed a placebo.

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First, before you run out and ask your doctor for a dasatinib script, this is a medication that is only used as chemotherapy for certain types of blood cancers, so you won’t be able to access it. On the quercetin side, that’s a common supplement that’s readily available, so it’s easy to get. However, realize that mice discs bear little resemblance to human discs. Meaning that many a drug or injectable has shown success in regenerating mice, rat, or rabbit discs and then completely crashed and burned in human trials. Why? They’re quadrupeds, so they don’t load their discs in the same way that bipeds with opposable thumbs do.

The upshot? This is interesting research. Quercetin has few side effects, so you can certainly take some to see if helps your back pain. Other supplements above are also easy to get. Metformin is one that I take as do many other physicians (it never helped my back), for general health, but getting it if you don’t have blood sugar control problems might be difficult. However, please don’t try to buy chemotherapy drugs from Mexico! Taking them to help back pain is a BAD idea.


(1) Zhu M, Meng P, Ling X, Zhou L. Advancements in therapeutic drugs targeting of senescence. Ther Adv Chronic Dis. 2020 Oct 13;11:2040622320964125. doi: 10.1177/2040622320964125. PMID: 33133476; PMCID: PMC7576933.

(2) Emanuel J. Novais, Victoria A. Tran, Shira N. Johnston, Kayla R. Darris, Alex J. Roupas, Garrett A. Sessions, Irving M. Shapiro, Brian O. Diekman, Makarand V. Risbud. Long-term treatment with senolytic drugs Dasatinib and Quercetin ameliorates age-dependent intervertebral disc degeneration in mice. Nature Communications, 2021; 12 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-25453-2

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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