A patient's own stem cells could soon be used to cure chronic back pain, say researchers.
Millions suffer debilitating back pain
The team from the University of Manchester hope their treatment will be available within three years.
They are perfecting a way to rebuild the soft shock-absorbing discs which separate the vertebrae in the spine.
Damage to these intervertebral discs (IVDs) is a common cause of debilitating low back pain which affects around 12 million in the UK.
A treatment which effectively cured the problem could potentially save the UK economy as much as £5 billion a year.
The new therapy, developed by Dr Stephen Richardson, uses mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) from adult bone marrow to regenerate spinal discs.
MSCs are a class of stem cell which can grow into many different cell types, including bone, cartilage, fat and muscle.
Dr Richardson has succeeded in turning MSCs into the cells which make up the gel-like nucleus pulposus (NP) tissue separating the vertebrae.
He plans to begin pre-clinical trials next year, with full patient trials to follow on.
Dr Richardson said: "Once we have extracted the bone marrow from the patient and have purified the MSCs, they will be grown in culture and our patented method of differentiation will be applied.
"They will then be embedded within a gel which can be implanted back into the patient."
Since the stem cells are taken from the patient's own body, there is no chance of them being rejected by the immune system.
The gel is based on a natural collagen similar to one already used for the treatment of cartilage defects.
It is implanted using an arthroscope, a thin tube device slipped through a small incision in the back.
Dr Richardson said there was no reason why a patient should not return home on the same day as the procedure, or the day after.
He said: "Once implanted, the differentiated MSCs would produce a new NP tissue with the same properties as the original and would both treat the underlying cause of the disease and remove the painful symptoms."
Currently, low back pain is treated with a combination of painkillers, physiotherapy or surgery.
In severe cases tissue is removed to relieve the pain, or vertebrae fused together.
However, success is limited, and these techniques do not solve the root cause of the problem.
Dries Hettinga, research and information manager at the charity BackCare, said: "This is a really exciting area of research and although it is still early days, the initial results look very promising."