A breakthrough stem cell treatment is hoped to help rein in a prescription drug ‘epidemic’ killing thousands in the United States.

The treatment, for chronic back pain, could bring welcome relief to millions of people suffering from lower back pain.

The injection would also offer a crucial alternative to prescription painkiller opioids, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone or methadone, which are leading to dangerous addiction among many Americans. Earlier this year, doctors warned against the rise of similar opiate painkillers in the UK.

Back pain is a common health issues that affects about 28 million people in the US, and accounts for around half of all opioid painkiller prescriptions there.

The US is currently experiencing an ‘opioid epidemic’, with more than 15,000 people dying from overdosing on the prescription painkillers in 2015. Last week, US president Donald Trump said he is due to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency.

Many of these deaths are due to patients becoming hooked on opioids after being prescribed the drugs to relieve lower back pain. Overdoses from prescriptions have increased four times since 1999 in the US.

The stem cell treatment works by injecting a dose of about six milion cells into damaged discs between the spine vertebrae.

The treatment offers a vital alternative to prescription painkillers for people suffering from back pain (Shutterstock)

Known as mesenchymal precursor cells, these work to reduce inflammation and help to rebuild damaged tissue.

The research was first conducted successfully in sheep where scientists were able to completely rebuild damaged vertebral discs.

Led by Silbiu Itescu, a team in Melbourne, Australia, then tried the technique in people. MRI scans found that the cells appeared to rebuild damaged discs in people as well.

Mr Itescu said, according to the New Scientist: “In 100 patients, we’ve shown substantial improvements in function and pain relief that last two years or more.

“If we’re successful in [our] larger trial currently under way, we can hopefully keep people away from opioids.

Figures released by the NHS in May showed that prescriptions for addictive opiate painkillers have doubled in the UK in the last decade, with doctors warning the drugs are being handed out too readily.

The new research is specifically focused on treating degenerative disc disease, which is one of the most common causes of lower back pain. The condition occurs when intervertebral discs deteriorate as a normal process of aging.

In the study, an injection of the cells helped around half of those treated to experience no back pain for two years. Some have been without pain for three years.

Preliminary results were presented at the annual meeting of the US Spine Intervention Society in New Orleans, in August. More detail will follow at the Piper Jaffray Healthcare Conference in New York in November.

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