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Researcher Highlight Q&A: Joshua Li, MD, Targeted Therapy for Spinal Disc Herniation

Xudong Joshua Li, MD, PhD, is a musculoskeletal researcher and the director of UVA Health's orthopedic spine research, with dual appointments as a professor in orthopedics and biomedical engineering. He is also the director of UVA Health's orthopedic spine fellowship program.

Work in Li's lab focuses on a wide range of spinal conditions and procedures, such as complex spine deformities, degenerative disc disorders, tumors and metastatic disease, trauma, minimally invasive and robotic surgery, and artificial disc replacements.

His research interests include intervertebral disc biology, cervical spinal surgery, scoliosis treatment, and clinical outcomes and epidemiology related to spinal surgery.

See Li's selected publications. Below, Li discusses his work and answers our Researcher Highlight questions:

What are you working on right now?

I am currently developing a targeted therapy for disc herniation. We're using a short peptide that binds to a cell membrane marker expressed by activated macrophages around the herniation site. This peptide is linked to a nanoparticle with potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties.

The goal is to enable nurses to administer this compound via peripheral vein injection to reduce inflammation around the disc herniation site.

What are the most intriguing potential clinical applications of your work? 

Our work aims to simplify the treatment of disc herniation. Instead of the traditional approach of epidural steroid injections performed by physicians in a procedure room, our targeted therapy (if successful) could allow for pain relief through a straightforward peripheral vein injection.

What recent discovery/paper/presentation has impacted the way you think? 

Our recent discovery of the peptide-nanoparticle combination has been instrumental in shaping our research into targeted therapy for disc herniation.

What made you choose UVA Health as the place to do your research? 

I chose UVA Health for my research because our laboratory has received over 6 million dollars in support from the NIH and UVA Health, allowing us to conduct cutting-edge research in this field.

What do you wish more people knew about your area of research?

I want people to understand that our translational research has the potential to significantly improve the lives of patients with disc herniation, reducing their suffering and offering a more accessible treatment option.

How did you become interested in your area of research? 

My passion for patient care drives my research into spine-related issues. Seeing patients at UVA Health's Orthopedic Center endure prolonged suffering before receiving epidural steroid injections motivated me to explore innovative solutions for their pain relief.

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