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Researchers Command Stem Cells to Repair Bones with a Single Molecule


Bone-building CellsUnderstanding more about stem cells is a common goal that is shared by many scientists from across the globe. With the ultimate goal of learning what makes stem cells develop into adult bone tissue, researchers from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), concluded in a recent study that they could do so using a single adenosine molecule instead of a cocktail that involves a complicated process of many steps and elements that’s still required for other tissues like blood or skin. Read on to learn about their discovery and the life changing potential it holds for many people, like injured soldiers and victims of serious accidents.

About the Research Team

Shyni Varghese, a bioengineering professor at UCSD and senior author of the study had this to say, “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 like induced pluripotent stem cells,” Varghese said.

In a previous study that had focused on understanding the role that calcium phosphate minerals played in the process of bone regeneration, Varghese and her team identified the elements produced in each step of the natural process that establishes bone-building cells which are called osteoblasts. What they found was that when the calcium phosphate is absorbed into stem cells it produces a metabolic molecule called ATP that breaks down and becomes adenosine which then coaxes the stem cells into becoming osteoblasts.

With their previous study concluded, they used what they had learned and wondered what would happen if they jumped to the final stages of the process and just started with the adenosine molecule directly to induce the formation of osteoblasts. With the support of UCSD and a grant from the National Institutes of Health, they began their latest study which led to their ground-breaking discovery.

The Science

There are two primary types of human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs), human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) and induced pluripotent stem cells which are commonly referred to as IPS cells or iPSC’s. Ips cells are typically harvested from blood or skin but they can be taken from any tissue (adult or child). The tissue is then genetically modified to produce cells that are programmable, similar to embryonic stem cells, and can become whatever type of adult cell desired. This process is referred to as differentiation. To get the adult cell type you want, you first have to learn what factors are required to differentiate the pluripotent stem cells so they ultimately become the type of adult cell you want them to.

Assuming control of the differentiation process is typically a very complex process, involving many steps and elements, but differentiation of IPS cells into osteoblasts can be controlled in the lab with just one element - the molecule adenosine, and one step – add it to the growth medium – that is all that is required to “command” the IPS cells to become osteoblasts, capable of bone formation complete with blood vessels, and even remodeling.

The Broader Goal

Learning that the adenosine molecule can in fact unlock the bone regeneration process directly is a huge leap forward in the race to provide economical and efficient cell therapy options that are readily available in hospitals and clinics throughout the world. Although additional work is required, for those that will benefit from bone cell regeneration therapy, I’m confident that the researchers at UCSD and elsewhere already have ideas for new studies that will close the gap required to make it a reality.

Comments (2)

  • George Williams

    George Williams

    21 December 2016 at 14:52 |
    Interesting article. I noticed that there has not been any for a while. How come you have stopped? I found your blog to be a good resource.


    • Super User

      Super User

      03 January 2017 at 11:01 |
      Thanks for your comment George, the article was a favorite of ours as well. Their research proves that stem cells can be used economically at a local level. For me, this discovery illustrates the huge part stem cells will play in the future of all medicine. We strive to write informative articles for the scientific community and are pleased to hear that they've been a good resource for you.


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