These stem cells might repair tiny skulls

Researchers say they hope to better understand and find stem-cell therapy for craniosynostosis, a skull deformity in infants. (Credit: Robert Occhialini/Flickr)

Scientists for the first time have identified and isolated stem cells that are capable of skull formation and craniofacial bone repair in mice.

With the discovery, researchers say they have taken an important step toward using stem cells for bone reconstruction of the face and head.

The goal is to better understand and find stem-cell therapy for a condition known as craniosynostosis, a skull deformity in infants, says Wei Hsu, professor of biomedical genetics at the Eastman Institute of Oral Health and the University of Rochester Medical Center.

As reported in the journal Nature Communications, craniosynostosis often leads to developmental delays and life-threatening elevated pressure in the brain.

[Stem cells, not surgery, may fix facial injuries]

The findings may contribute to an emerging field involving tissue engineering that uses stem cells and other materials to invent superior ways to replace damaged craniofacial bones in humans due to congenital disease, trauma, or cancer surgery, Hsu says.

For years, researchers have focused on the function of the Axin2 gene and a mutation that causes craniosynostosis in mice. Because of a unique expression pattern of the Axin2 gene in the skull, the scientists then began investigating the activity of Axin2-expressing cells and their role in bone formation, repair and regeneration.

The latest finding shows that stem cells central to skull formation are contained within Axin2 cell populations, comprising about 1 percent. Further, the lab tests used to uncover the skeletal stem cells might also be useful to find bone diseases caused by stem cell abnormalities.

The team also confirmed that this population of stem cells is unique to bones of the head, and that separate and distinct stem cells are responsible for formation of long bones in the legs and other parts of the body, for example.

Source: University of Rochester