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Stanford University School of Medicine

Calcium the conductor: New role found for mineral in bone development

It isn’t news that we need calcium to keep our bones dense and strong. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, or if your body doesn’t absorb enough, your bones can become brittle and fragile. But calcium is more than just an essential part of your bone structure. A new research study shows that it also plays a major role in regulating the cells that control bone formation.

Biochemist Michael Rape, PhD, and his colleagues at University of California, Berkeley studied how bone cells form in very early embryos. In particular, they focused on neural crest cells that help develop bones in the head and face. Without enough neural crest cells, an embryo dies or has a craniofacial disorder like Treacher Collins syndrome, which is characterized by deformed ears, eyes and cheekbones.

The Berkeley researchers weren’t expecting to discover a new role for calcium. Instead, they were investigating how to turn on enzymes like CUL3 to form normal, healthy bones. Previous research showed that CUL3 enzymes can trigger undifferentiated stem cells to become neural crest cells during embryo development. In this study, the team learned that calcium is essential to help CUL3 trigger proper bone growth -- surprising results that were recently reported in Cell.

As Rape explained in a recent news release:

Our research basically identifies calcium not only as a structural element of bone, which makes the bone strong and sturdy, but also as a signaling molecule for bone formation that we hadn’t appreciated before, which can be used to turn enzymes on and off.. This means that you basically have many different steps that come together in order to form a bone, and that they are beautifully orchestrated by calcium.

This research became more personal to Rape when he was visited by Francis Smith, PhD, a Treacher Collins syndrome patient and postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Colorado. Rape said in the video above, “When you talk to patients of a disease, it shows you the direct consequences of your work and the urgency of your work becomes much more apparent.”

Further research is needed before this work can be used to help trigger proper bone growth for patients, but the researchers are hopeful. “The more you understand about each of these steps, the easier it is to focus your applied research onto things that matter and change something for these patients,” Rape said in the news release.

Previously: From art to surgery: Stanford Medicine alumna reconstructs new ears for children and Stanford reconstruction surgeon Jill Helms reminds us that “beauty isn’t defined by our faces alone”
Video courtesy of UC Berkeley

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