The spinal column consists of 24 vertebrae that provide axial support to the torso and protection to the spinal cord that runs through its central cavity. The vertebrae are connected by means of intervertebral discs. These discs are highly hydrated, flexible and highly mechanically resistant. They allow the column its flexibility and act as shock absorbers during daily activities such as walking, running and in impact situations, such as jumping.
These unique features are made possible by the discs’ tissue composition and structure. At its center, there is a gel-like substance called nucleus pulposus (NP). This is surrounded by a fibrocartilage, the annulus fibrosus (AF), that laterally confines NP and enables high fluid pressure within, thus stabilizing the disc mechanically, like an inflated tyre. Upwards and downwards of the NP, are thin layers of cartilage (cartilage endplates, CEP), which separate the NP and the inner part of the AF of the vertebral bone. These layers of cartilage regulate the exchange of water and important biomolecules between the vertebrae and the NP, thus contributing to both the mechanics and the functional biological regulation of the disc.
A recent study published in the journal Bioinformatics presents a model to study the intervertebral disc resorting to experimental knowledge, and for the first time, network modeling solutions in systems biology, to mimic the cellular behavior of NP cells exposed to a 3-D multifactorial biochemical environment. This research has been carried out by members of the BCN MedTech Research Unit, a center attached to the UPF Department of Information and Communication Technologies (DTIC), with Laura Baumgartner, a UPF Ph.D. student as first author of the article, under the guidance of Jérôme Noailly, co-author of the study.