Anand H Segar, Jeremy C T Fairbank, Jill Urban

February 2019, Volume 28, Issue 2, pp 214 - 223 Original Article Read Full Article 10.1007/s00586-018-5778-7

First Online: 15 October 2018


The aim of this study was to identify the effects of leptin upon the intervertebral disc (IVD) and to determine whether these responses are potentiated within an environment of existing degeneration. Obesity is a significant risk factor for low back pain (LBP) and IVD degeneration. Adipokines, such as leptin, are novel cytokines produced primarily by adipose tissue and have been implicated in degradative and inflammatory processes. Obese individuals are known to have higher concentrations of serum leptin, and IVD cells express leptin receptors. We hypothesise that adipokines, such as leptin, mediate a biochemical link between obesity, IVD degeneration and LBP.


The bovine intervertebral disc was used as a model system to investigate the biochemical effects of obesity, mediated by leptin, upon the intervertebral disc. Freshly isolated cells, embedded in 3D alginate beads, were subsequently cultured under varying concentrations of leptin, alone or together with the pro-inflammatory cytokines TNF-α, IL-1β or IL-6. Responses in relation to production of nitric oxide, lactate, glycosaminoglycans and expression of anabolic and catabolic genes were analysed.


Leptin influenced the cellular metabolism leading particularly to greater production of proteases and NO. Addition of leptin to an inflammatory environment demonstrated a marked deleterious synergistic effect with greater production of NO, MMPs and potentiation of pro-inflammatory cytokine production.


Leptin can initiate processes involved in IVD degeneration. This effect is potentiated in an environment of existing degeneration and inflammation. Hence, a biochemical mechanism may underlie the link between obesity, intervertebral disc degeneration and low back pain.

Graphical abstract

These slides can be retrieved under Electronic Supplementary Material.[Figure not available: see fulltext.]

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