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Clarkson University’s new biology professor to tackle back pain

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POTSDAM — There is only one thing to say about chronic back pain: it hurts.

Thomas C. Lufkin, who holds Clarkson University’s new Bayard and Virginia Clarkson Endowed Chair of Biology, says the key to eliminating most chronic back pain may lie in stem cells.

“My focus on this grew out of the research I was doing in Singapore where we were looking at how genes interact in networks to form organs,” he said. “One of the areas we made a lot of progress on is understanding how the vertebral column and the intervertebral discs are formed.”

Chronic back pain costs the U.S. economy $30 billion annually in lost work days, Mr. Lufkin said. A 2003 study by the National Institutes of Health says back pain is the most common cause of missed work days, and Americans spend at least $50 billion annually on the problem.

“It is not a rare problem. It is really quite common,” Mr. Lufkin said. “The majority of individuals suffer some sort of back problems related to the discs at some point in their life.”

As more Americans adjust to careers at computers in cubicles, they become susceptible to back problems. Mr. Lufkin said ideally, people would sit in a reclined position to take the pressure off their lower spine. Spending hours a day leaning forward or upright puts pressure on the discs.

Mr. Lufkin said most chronic back pain is from minor injury to or degeneration of the vertebral discs. The spinal column has two main components: bone vertebrae that provide rigid support and cartilage discs that allow the back to be flexible.

“We’re using stem cell therapy with the patient’s own cells,” he said. “We wouldn’t have to use immunosuppressants. There would be no problems with rejections,” he said. Using a patient’s own cells also would prevent the political and ethical pitfalls of harvesting embryonic stem cells. The stem cells then would be coaxed into becoming cartilage cells.

“Our work is twofold. One part is generating new discs that can be used as replacements during surgery for ones that have to be removed,” Mr. Lufkin said. “In the case of people who have degeneration of the discs, you would take a needle and put into the person cells that were basically adolescent-aged intervertebral disc cells that could regrow the disc.”

Mr. Lufkin then would need an assist from Clarkson’s top-shelf engineers and physicists.

“The collaborative group of professors that are here, they are ones we can work together with,” he said. “This is going to take an interdisciplinary group to bring this to fruition. I have no experience with polymer chemistry or nano-engineering or three-dimensional printing of bio-structures. This is done by people who are more physics or engineering trained.”

Clarkson’s concentration of high-tech academics and entrepreneurs has become a selling point to attract some of the leading minds to Potsdam’s relatively small and isolated locale.

“We’re used to having to collaborate with people internationally. It is nice here you can go down the hall and find someone to work with,” Mr. Lufkin said. “I can’t do it without the physicists.”

The recent sub-zero temperatures of the north country are a stark contrast to Mr. Lufkin’s most recent home in Singapore, where he worked.

“I was living in the tropics before. It was between 85 to 95 degrees,” he said. “This is my second week. I really like it. My kids love the snow. It’s great to have four seasons again.”

Mr. Lufkin holds a bachelor of science degree in cell biology from the University of California, Berkeley, and a doctorate in molecular biology from Cornell University, Ithaca. He completed postdoctoral research at the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics of Eucaryotes, Strasbourg, France.

He previously was an associate professor of developmental biology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and an adjunct faculty member at Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore.

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