Randee Young and Xin Sun, University of Wisconsin–Madison
The image above shows a small section of the trachea, or windpipe, of a developing mouse. Although it’s only about the diameter of a pinhead at this stage of development, the mouse trachea has a lot in common structurally with the much wider and longer human trachea. Both develop from a precisely engineered balance between the flexibility of smooth muscle and the supportive strength and durability of cartilage.
Here you can catch a glimpse of this balance. C-rings of cartilage (red) wrap around the back of the trachea, providing the support needed to keep its tube open during breathing. Attached to the ends of the rings are dark shadowy bands of smooth muscles, which are connected to a web of nerves (green). The tension supplied by the muscle cells is essential for proper development of those neatly organized cartilage rings.
Caption: From stem cells to bone. Human bone cell progenitors, derived from stem cells, were injected under the skin of mice and formed mineralized structures containing cartilage (1-2) and bone (3). Credit: Loh KM and Chen A et al., 2016
To help people suffering from a wide array of injuries and degenerative diseases, scientists and bioengineers have long dreamed of creating new joints and organs using human stem cells. A major hurdle on the path to achieving this dream has been finding ways to steer stem cells into differentiating into all of the various types of cells needed to build these replacement parts in a fast, efficient manner.
Now, an NIH-funded team of researchers has reported important progress on this front. The researchers have identified for the first time the precise biochemical signals needed to spur human embryonic stem cells to produce 12 key types of cells, and to do so rapidly. With these biochemical “recipes” in hand, researchers say they should be able to generate pure populations of replacement cells in a matter of days, rather than the weeks or even months it currently takes. In fact, they have already demonstrated that their high-efficiency approach can be used to produce potentially therapeutic amounts of human bone, cartilage, and heart tissue within a very short time frame.
Credit: Brendan Lee and Zhechao Ruan, Department of Molecular and Human Genetics, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX
Our joints are pretty amazing marvels of engineering, but they don’t last forever. As we age, or if we suffer certain injuries, the smooth, slippery white cartilage covering the ends of our bones begins to fray and degrade. This causes osteoarthritis (OA), or ‘wear-and-tear’ arthritis. As the cartilage thins and disappears, the bones can even grow spurs that grate against each other, causing swelling and pain. It’s a major cause of disability, and there’s currently no cure—other than joint replacement, which is a pretty big deal and isn’t available for all joints. About 27 million Americans already have osteoarthritis; about 1 in 2 will suffer from some form of the disease over their lifetime. Those are lousy odds.