Conventional therapies for low back pain (LBP) are purely symptomatic and do not target the cause of LBP, which in approximately 40% of cases is caused by degeneration of the intervertebral disc (DIVD). Targeting therapies to inhibit the process of degeneration would be a potentially valuable treatment for LBP. There is increasing evidence for a role for IL-1 in DIVD. A natural inhibitor of IL-1 exists, IL-1Ra, which would be an ideal molecular target for inhibiting IL-1-mediated effects involved in DIVD and LBP. In this study, the feasibility of ex vivo gene transfer of IL-1Ra to the IVD was investigated. Monolayer and alginate cultures of normal and degenerate human intervertebral disc (IVD) cells were infected with an adenoviral vector carrying the IL-1Ra gene (Ad-IL-1Ra) and protein production measured using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. The ability of these infected cells to inhibit the effects of IL-1 was also investigated. In addition, normal and degenerate IVD cells infected with Ad-IL-1Ra were injected into degenerate disc tissue explants and IL-1Ra production in these discs was assessed. This demonstrated that both nucleus pulposus and annulus fibrosus cells infected with Ad-IL-1Ra produced elevated levels of IL-1Ra for prolonged time periods, and these infected cells were resistant to IL-1. When the infected cells were injected into disc explants, IL-1Ra protein expression was increased which was maintained for 2 weeks of investigation. This in vitro study has shown that the use of ex vivo gene transfer to degenerate disc tissue is a feasible therapy for the inhibition of IL-1-mediated events during disc degeneration. © 2006 Blackwell Science Ltd.