Researchers have engineered a material that replicates human bone tissue with an unprecedented level of precision, from its microscopic crystal structure to its biological activity. They are using it to explore fundamental disease processes, such as the origin of metastatic tumors in bone, and as a treatment for large bone injuries.
"Essentially it is a miniaturized bone in a dish that we can produce in a matter of 72 hours or less," says the senior author.
Like real bone, the material has a 3D mineral structure populated with bone cells, nerve cells and endothelial cells that self-organize into functioning blood vessels.
"What is remarkable is that researchers in our field have become used to cultivating cells within a protein mixture to approximate how cells live in the body. But this is the first time anyone has been able to embed cells in minerals, which is what characterizes the bone tissue," the senior author says.
And that's what makes the new material promising as a model to study bone function, diseases, and bone regeneration. "With this model system, you can start asking questions about how bone cells attract different types of cancers, how cancer cells move into bone, how bone takes part in the regulation of marrow function," says the senior author.
"It can even be relevant to dissect the mechanisms that are leading to diseases such as leukemia." The senior author published the results in the journal Nature Communications.
"Being able to engineer truly bone-like tissues in the lab can also be transformative for regenerative medicine," the senior author says, "since the current treatment for large bone fractures requires the removal of the patient's own healthy bone so that it can be implanted at the site of injury."
The recipe starts with the mixing of human stem cells into a solution loaded with collagen, a protein abundant in the matrix of bone tissue. The collagen proteins link together, forming a gel embedded with the stem cells. The researchers then flood the gel with a mixture of dissolved calcium and phosphate, the minerals of bone. They add another key ingredient, the protein osteopontin derived from cow milk, to keep the minerals from forming crystals too quickly. This additive, which clings to calcium and phosphate, also minimizes the minerals' toxicity to cells.
The mixture diffuses through a network of channels about the width of a strand of DNA in the spongey collagen, and the dissolved minerals precipitate into orderly layers of crystals.
"We can reproduce the architecture of bone down to a nanometer scale," says the senior author. "Our model goes through the same biophysical process of formation that bone does."
In this calcified environment, stem cells develop into functioning bone cells, osteoblasts and osteocytes without the addition of any other molecules, as if they knew they were being embedded in an actual bone matrix. Within days, the growing cells squeeze slender protrusions through spaces in their mineralized surroundings to connect and communicate with neighboring cells. The bone-like engineered structure creates a microenvironment that is sufficient to cue stem cells that it's time to mature into bone cells.
A unique 3D mineral structure model populated with living cells to study bone function, diseases, regeneration
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