A new research study offers scientists the hope of being able to generate new bone tissue from stem cells in the future. The findings of the research at the University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD, is good news for people with conditions like osteoporosis, as well as those with skeletal injuries, who could benefit from the ground-breaking new stem cell technologies.
It is the first time that scientists have been able to identify a way to manipulate certain stem cells to grow new bone tissue and orthopaedic specialists have welcomed the findings and called for further studies in this area.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the potential to undertake almost any function in the body.
This has great therapeutic potential, but researchers need to understand more about how to manipulate stem cells to create new tissues that could be used to replace or help repair damaged ones.
Perivascular stem cells
The Baltimore study, led by Dr Aaron James and published in the journal Scientific Reports, looked at perivascular stem cells which can turn into either fat tissue or bone tissue. Up until now it has been unclear what determines the cells’ final form and the researchers were keen to understand the mechanisms that lead to the stem cells becoming either fat or bone.
In earlier studies, a particular signalling protein called WISP-1 was identified as the likely factor that might determine what perivascular stem cells would become. The researchers set out to prove this by genetically modifying a group of human stem cells to prevent them from producing this protein.
They found that in the cells without WISP-1 genes responsible for fat formation were more active.
They concluded that this signalling protein had an important role to play and that, given the correct dosage of WISP-1, the stem cells could be made to produce bone cells.
They tested this and found that the stem cells that were modified to increase WISP-1 production saw the genes that stimulate the growth of bone tissue becoming twice as active, while the genes that stimulate the growth of fat tissue became 42% less active.
WISP-1 as a catalyst for bone healing
Next they studied whether this signalling protein could boost bone healing in spinal fusion, where two or more vertebrae are joined to form a single bone. This is a procedure that is used for conditions such as scoliosis. If bone cells could be created at the fusion site it would potentially help patients recover more quickly and reduce the risk of non-fusion complications.
These same techniques can be directly applied and translated into surgeries for orthopaedic fractures and traumatic injuries as well as used for adjunct procedures in joint replacement surgeries.
Human stem cells with active WISP-1 were injected into rats which then underwent a fusion procedure. After four weeks the rats still had high levels of the protein in their spinal tissue and new bone tissue was forming in the right places causing the vertebrae to fuse.
Rats that had the same surgical intervention but without the WISP-1 boost had no evidence of vertebral fusion.
Stem cells in bone formation
The scientists believe their study could help advance the development of stem cell therapies to promote bone formation after surgery and for bone-related diseases and skeletal injuries.
They hope to conduct another study to determine whether reducing WISP-1 levels in stem cells could cause them to form fat tissue which could help speed up wound healing.
Carrothers Orthopaedics stay fully up-to-date with latest research and advances in technology
We believe it is vital to be at the forefront of new research. This is why as orthopaedic surgeons, we spend time understanding studies such as this one so we can see how today’s research may benefit our future patients.
In a similar way, we have seen the use of MAKO robotic assisted surgery, increase and improve in recent years, enabling us to provide a new approach to joint replacement surgery, offering more precision and shorter recovery times. At present, Carrothers Orthopaedics is one of only a handful of practices in the east of England using MAKO.
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