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John Martin, PhD, awarded F32 Grant


DURHAM, N.C. – The Department of Orthopedic Surgery’s John Martin, PhD, has been awarded the Ruth L. Kirschstein Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award for research investigating the changes in lumbar spine intervertebral discs with age in relation to low back pain.

The Ruth L. Kirschstein Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award, also known as the F32 grant, is a fellowship presented by the National Institute of Health to postdoctoral researchers in medical fields to expand on their previous research as doctoral candidates. Only twenty-eight postdoctoral researchers are currently funded by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), making this an extremely prestigious accomplishment. Dr. Martin joins Amber Collins, PhD, as the second researcher in Dr. Lou DeFrate’s lab to have received the F32 grant. 

Dr. Martin’s PhD research in Dr. Rob Mauck’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania centered around intervertebral disc tissue engineering. His team developed a living disc that could function as a native one. These living discs were found to be viable matches for maintaining spinal function in rats, and current research is investigating their functionality in goats with much success.

Dr. Martin joined Dr. Lou DeFrate’s lab at Duke in January 2016. The experience has provided him with exposure to human subjects research as well as an understanding of Dr. DeFrate’s advanced imaging techniques used to examine joint mechanics. This technique is highly valuable for studying human spine function.

The general trajectory of the grant research is to fill in gaps in our ability to assess lower back pain in an effort to improve the quality of treatment. Lower back pain is a problem that 10% of the population faces chronically, and that 80% will experience at some point in their lives. It has a significant economic burden on the United States economy, costing an estimated $100-200 billion each year.

Despite the significance and prevalence of the condition, there are still major obstacles to diagnosing the underlying causes of an individual’s back pain. One such issue lies in the lack of existing research exploring the differences between intervertebral discs in individuals with and without low back pain. Dr. Martin’s grant research seeks to take a step towards remedying this gap in knowledge by utilizing advanced radiography and magnetic resonance imaging techniques to explore functional spine changes that come with age.  In doing so, Dr. Martin is able to utilize Dr. DeFrate’s advanced imaging techniques.

Article written by Sophie Alman