The intervertebral disc is a complex structure responsible for flexibility, multi-axial motion, and load transmission throughout the spine. Importantly, degeneration of the intervertebral disc is thought to be an initiating factor for back pain. Due to a lack of understanding of the pathways that govern disc degeneration, there are currently no disease-modifying treatments to delay or prevent degenerative disc disease. This review presents an overview of our current understanding of the developmental processes that regulate intervertebral disc formation, with particular emphasis on the role of the notochord and notochord-derived cells in disc homeostasis and how their loss can result in degeneration. We then describe the role of small animal models in understanding the development of the disc and their use to interrogate disc degeneration and associated pathologies. Finally, we highlight essential development pathways that are associated with disc degeneration and/or implicated in the reparative response of the tissue that might serve as targets for future therapeutic approaches.
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