A new stem cell study conducted at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine has isolated a trigger in stem cells which could be the key to growing bone and combating conditions like osteoporosis and obesity.
Published in March, the study is the culmination of years of work to define a specific biochemical switch that determines whether stem cells become bone or fat. The discovery, led by the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute at UM, focused on specific types of stem cells, called mesenchymal stem cells, which are found in the bone marrow.
“We could pin it down to a specific amino acid on a specific protein,” said Dr. Joshua Hare, founding director of the institute and senior author on the study. “This was a really exciting and elegant body of work.”
The study extracted stem cells from genetically modified mice whose cells created more bone and less fat. The stem cells were analyzed to determine the specific checkpoint that, like a switch, can be triggered to cause stem cells to change into bone cells rather than fat cells. The treated mice were thinner and had a higher percentage of lean mass compared to wild mice, signals that Hare said reflect the possible implications of the research.
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By knowing the location of the biochemical switch, Hare said, scientists can manipulate it to grow bone and treat various conditions. The research has not yet been tested on humans.
“There’s a lot of work ahead, but at least we have what is called a therapeutic target,” Hare said. “If we can inhibit it with drugs, it can lead to favorable results.”
Hare said it would take about 15 years before a drug could possibly be developed to target the biochemical switch that would trigger the stem cells’ differentiation into bone cells and ultimately treat conditions like osteoporosis and bone deformations.
Scientists are increasingly working to find new ways to use stem cells to treat conditions including heart damage, brain diseases, like strokes or dementia, and eye disease.
As people age past 30, they begin to lose more bone mass than their bodies create, he said, causing the bones to become more brittle and leading to hip fractures in one in three women and one in five men over the age of 50.
Using stem cells to grow bones would prevent the degeneration process, Hare said, and “make it go the other way.”
“This has important aging implications,” he said.
It could also potentially treat obesity by creating less fat, but until the research is tested on humans, the full range and extent of treatment options will be unclear.
The research was spearheaded by Yenong Cao, a 27-year-old graduate student and first author on the paper, who said the discovery was a moment of celebration for the institute, which was founded in 2008 to research stem cell therapies for untreatable diseases.
She said she hopes the work will have a “great benefit to the patient population.”
She has been accepted to the Miller School of Medicine and said she plans to continue research on the project.
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This story was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.