Feel It in Your Bones: Regrowth is Possible

Single molecule could create new bone tissue from stem cells

A team of researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) announced a breakthrough in stem cell research last month. They showed it’s possible to grow bone tissue in a living organism by using a combination of stem cells and adenosine — a naturally occurring molecule that is popular in cellular processes.

Other studies on bone tissue have used expensive cocktails of molecules and procedures, but this study could be the start of a new, streamlined approach.

The research could mean big things for people suffering traumatic injuries or for infants born with orthopedic defects.

Adenosine is probably most famous as the energy transfer molecule, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Adenosine is an important factor in bone fracture repair and overall bone health, recent studies have shown. So Dr. Shyni Varghese, a bioengineering professor at UCSD, decided with her colleagues to see what adenosine could do with stem cells.

Stem cells are the superheroes of the cellular world. They can differentiate any tissue in the body — muscle, bone, blood — and they can replicate perpetually.

The trick with stem cells is getting them to generate the right type of tissue. Earlier this year, Japanese researchers used gold dust to grow bone tissue from stem cells. Another study used stem cells to repair a patient’s jawbone during a dental procedure. The New York Stem Cell Foundation published research in 2012 showing they could use stem cells to repair bone defects up to a centimeter in size.

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The main complication with all of this is money. Researchers are still unclear about the muddled signals that trigger cell division and differentiation. Getting the stem cells to grow a specific tissue is a difficult, expensive, and a somewhat mysterious process. Scientists know that turning genes on and off is an important part — but exactly how and when those genes should be expressed remains unclear. Cancer serves as a prime example of what happens when genetic expression goes awry.

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Tissues grown from stem cells often develop teratomas, a type of tumor that contains many different types of body tissue. This happens because a few of the cells refuse to cooperate and produce the correct type of tissue.

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Approved Stem Cell Treatments” source=””]The most extensively used stem cell treatment is hematopoietic (or blood) stem cell transplantation, to treat certain blood and immune system disorders or to rebuild the blood system after treatments for some kinds of cancer. Some bone, skin and corneal (eye) injuries and diseases can be treated as well. Beware of stem cell treatments offered without regulatory approval or outside the confines of a legitimate and registered clinical trial.[/lz_bulleted_list]

The study from Dr. Varghese and her team at UCSD could help solve the money problem. By using adenosine, they got the stem cells to produce osteoblasts — or the beginning bone structure. This structure also had blood vessels, which meant it could function and grow within a living organism. When these osteoblasts were inserted into mice with bone defects, they formed bone tissue free from tumors or malformations.

“It’s amazing that a single molecule can direct stem cell fate. We don’t need to use a cocktail of small molecules, growth factors, or other supplements to create a population of bone cells from human pluripotent stem cells,” Dr. Varghese said in a media release.

This research could mean big things for people suffering traumatic injuries or for infants born with orthopedic defects. Dylan Olson (not his real name) of Denver, Colorado, was born with fibular hemimelia. His fibula bone was missing, his tibia was bowed, and his femur was shortened. He was also missing stabilizing ligaments in his knee, ankle, and foot. Ultimately, his parents decided to amputate his foot when he was 13 months old because he could function better with a prosthetic.

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“When he was first diagnosed, we didn’t know what his future would be like,” said Katie Olson, the boy’s mother. The year after his diagnosis was devastating, she said. This wasn’t a quick-fix condition, either. He has had three follow-up surgeries, and those times have been stressful and challenging. But he’s now an energetic and competent five-year-old boy, and Katie Olson told LifeZette he’s unstoppable. “He’s a little fighter, and he’s a determined little kid. So really nothing has stopped him.”

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The Olsons attend a support group for people in similar situations. Katie Olson hopes the research from UCSD might help patients like them — cancer survivors, soldiers with traumatic injuries, and other children like her son. Regrowing an entire bone — complete with its accompanying tissues and ligaments — isn’t in the foreseeable future. But some kids with fibular hemimelia are born with less extreme conditions, in which the fibula is only shortened. In these cases, it’s possible research into stem cells could make up for those and other bone deficiencies.

Dr. Varghese said her team is already looking for new targets “to treat bone defects and non-healing bone fractures.” She also added that a human application is still years in the making: “A clinical trial would take many years.”

Katie Olson said that she has been amazed by the medical and technological advances of recent years. “If there’s a way to improve someone’s quality of life, I’m all for it,” she said.

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