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headshot of Dr Valeria Perugini

Fellowship award for Brighton researcher on disc-related back pain

Dr Valeria Perugini is the latest recipient of the Shepperd Fellowship, created to fund research at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine and Devices.

The Shepperd Fellowship is a generous philanthropic donation made by consultant orthopaedic surgeon Mr John Shepperd to support work at one of several pioneering specialist Centres at the university. A key aim is to help develop new in vitro models to tackle the sometimes agonising pain of intervertebral disc degeneration (IVD), a common condition caused by damaged spinal discs.

Clinical MRI imaging will be used to create 3D bio-printed constructs – featuring living cells that can be stimulated to mimic different degrees of physical stress. These constructs will provide an invaluable tool for training young orthopaedic surgeons and for planning surgery.

“The long-term goal is to eliminate IVD-related back pain in 20 years,” said Dr Perugini. “Current treatments for back pain are predominantly conservative – involving, for example, physiotherapy and anti-inflammatory medications, due to a lack of specific tools [to better understand] the complex cascade that leads to symptomatic disc degeneration.“

Fellowship donor John Shepperd added: “2020 was a year that highlighted the crucial importance of basic science research. There is no better time to launch a project addressing the major problem of back disorders…. It currently afflicts 20% of the population, with 7% of the western world’s workforce on sick leave. We hope this initiative will be produce real advances, and attract further support in the future.”

Dr Perugini will build on past research at the Centre to gain better understanding of the influence tissue components and mechanical stresses have on spinal discs, both when they are healthy and in diseased states that cause pain.

Dr Perugini will be supported by a multi-disciplinary team, including Dr Derek Covill (advanced engineering and 3D printing), Dr Nick Dowell (clinical imaging) and Prof Matteo Santin (biomaterials for regenerative medicine and medical devices). Fittingly, the provider of the Fellowship, Mr John Shepperd, will also provide what Dr Perugini’s describes as “extraordinary expertise in this field”.

Stephanie Thomson • February 8, 2021

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