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Stanford study shows protein bath may rev up sluggish bone-forming cells

Fractures that are complex, pose a significant health risk, or don’t heal properly are repaired using bone grafts. The surgical process involves transplanting whole marrow, which is rich in stem cells that form bone, blood and the cells of the immune system, into a fracture site.

Although it’s preferable to use a patient’s own tissue to avoid rejection, elderly patients (whose older marrow forms bone less robustly), often require the use of donor bone marrow from younger people or the use of drugs to stimulate bone growth.

Now researchers at Stanford have identified a simple way to stimulate old marrow to form bone, which could allow the use a patient’s own cells without medications. My colleague explains the findings in a release:

In studies involving mice and rabbits, the researchers found that a quick dip in a bath of a signaling protein called Wnt3a can rev up sluggish bone-forming cells in older animals that would normally be unable to heal a fracture. If the simple treatment is eventually found to be effective in humans, it may significantly improve the success of bone grafts, which are performed more than 500,000 times every year in the United States.

"We're very focused on designing a treatment that could be easily employed by orthopaedic surgeons in the normal course of bone grafting," said professor of surgery Jill Helms, DDS, PhD. "We've shown that when we temporarily treat bone marrow from aged animals with Wnt before transplanting the cells into a fracture site, we see really robust bone formation."


"Hip fractures in elderly people nearly triple the risk of dying within a year of the injury, and a rapidly aging population demands more effective treatments for this type of trauma," said Helms.

Previously: Iron-supplement-slurping stem cells can be transplanted, then tracked to make sure they’re making new knees and Biomarker can predict graft-versus-host disease in men after transplants from women donors

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