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UWM Uncovers Bone-Replacement Proteins

While the discovery is human-based, it could be applied to pets too.


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These micrographs show treated and untreated bone cells in a mouse model of severe bone loss. Wisconsin researchers have identified two native protein factors that help keep mesenchymal stem cells—the master cells that make bone and cartilage—happy in the petri dish. The work could one day help make regenerating lost bone in patients a reality.

Courtesy of Wan-Ju Li

A discovery by the University of Wisconsin, Madison (UWM) researchers could one day lead to the use of proteins found in human bone marrow to regrow bone—not just for humans, but for dogs and cats, too.

Wan-Ju Li, Ph.D., a UWM professor of orthopedics and biomedical engineering, and Dr. Tsung-Lin Tsai, Ph.D., a UWM postdoctoral researcher, reported their findings online in the scientific journal Stem Cell Reports in February.

The scientists identified proteins lipocalin-2 and prolactin in bone marrow as key regulators of the master cells controlling bone growth.

“These are pretty interesting molecules,” said Dr. Li of the two proteins. “We found that they are critical in regulating the fate of mesenchymal stem cells.”

While Li and Dr. Tsai’s research is human-based, Li said their findings are universal and should be true across different species, thus holding promise for veterinary medicine, too.

Li and Tsai found that by exposing mesenchymal stem cells to a combination of lipocalin-2 and prolactin in culture that senescence, the natural process that robs cells of their power to divide and grow, is reduced and slowed. 

The ability to manipulate mesenchymal stem cells in the laboratory and keep them ready to divide and form bone on cue could pave the way for “implants seeded with cells that can replace bone tissue lost to disease or injury.” 

Li said that the next step will be for researchers to “find an appropriate animal model to verify their results.”

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