Pieter-Paul Vergroesen’s ground-breaking findings

‘Why do some intervertebral discs degenerate?’

Looking at newspaper headlines today, one doesn’t generally get the feeling that the world is heading in the right direction. Every page of the newspaper presents fresh tragedies. Fortunately, I was recently given a pleasant surprise which somewhat increased my faith in the future and in mankind. Pieter-Paul Vergroesen, the son of old friends of mine from Brabant, was awarded his doctorate by Amsterdam VU University at the end of October. Vergroesen is a highly talented and enthusiastic young doctor who was studying a subject that is at the heart of my profession: intervertebral discs. Such discs are positioned between our vertebrae. They serve as shock absorbers to our spine and allow the spine to move. Pieter-Paul Vergroesen was trying to find new answers to the question as to why intervertebral discs degenerate and so give rise to hernias and backache. I’ll spare you the hard-to-understand jargon he used in his dissertation, but his conclusions were groundbreaking. I’ll paraphrase them for you below.

Overloaded muscles, tendons and joints

The condition of an intervertebral disc is determined by the balance struck between cells, tissue and mechanical loading. This balance will remain in order as long as sufficient water can be bound to the intervertebral disc. Once an intervertebral disc starts degenerating, this balance is disrupted and the intervertebral disc loses the capacity to bind water, thus causing it to collapse. This puts the adjacent muscles, tendons and joints at risk of being overloaded, which may cause backache.

Establishing that an intervertebral disc is degenerating at an early stage

To a fifty-something doctor like myself, it is inspiring to see a new generation of doctors keen to lift my beautiful profession to an even higher level. Thanks to discoveries such as those made by Pieter-Paul, degeneration of an intervertebral disc can in the near future identified at an early stage. This may help scientists develop a preventive therapy to treat such intervertebral discs, so that the onset of backache can be delayed or even prevented in many people.

This is excellent news, because the patients I meet in my surgery every day tell me that backache can totally disrupt your life. Another thing that strikes me when talking to young doctors is how close they are to their patients and how well they can communicate with them. PhD theses tend to be dull as dishwater. Pieter-Paul’s dissertation contains nuggets of self-deprecating humour, which are funny without going at the expense of the scientific contents of his thesis. This occasional wink was music to my Brabant ears. Brilliant, well-trained scientists who still manage to be nice doctors and who like to be innovative... If that’s the future of health care, maybe there is hope for the planet, after all.

Pieter-Paul Vergroesen’s PhD thesis

Vergroesen’s findings can be accessed on line! Click the button below to view his dissertation:

View the dissertation

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