Skeletal: Bone and Cartilage

UCLA faculty studying stem cell and musculoskeletal disease seek to discover better ways to regenerate bone and cartilage. Our multidisciplinary team has expertise in reconstructive surgery, musculoskeletal, developmental, and stem cell biology, molecular pathology, material and clinical science, and bioengineering. Together, they identified a key growth factor (Nell1) that helps “jumpstart” the body’s own stem cells to repair lost or damaged bone and cartilage tissues. This discovery could have significant implications for treating trauma patients with significant musculoskeletal injuries and can also be used to treat or “reactivate” stem cells in aged populations with osteoporotic bone loss or cartilage loss from “wear and tear” and osteoarthritis.

Our faculty have successfully combined Nell1 with specially engineered scaffolds to activate stem cells in order to regenerate bone in long bone models like the arms and legs, the spine, and parts of the skull in non-human animals. Nell1 also dramatically promotes healing in joint cartilage models. Currently, work is being conducted to identify and develop ways to deliver Nell 1 to injured joints in a minimally invasive way.

Remarkably, Nell1 also significantly harnessed mesenchymal or connective tissue stem cells in bone marrow to form new bone in osteoporotic models. Since most clinical osteoporosis therapies work to prevent bone loss rather than build new bone like Nell1, the Broad Stem Cell Research Center is sponsoring work to develop the promising application of Nell1 to activate bone forming stem cells in osteoporosis patients.

In addition, using unique stem cell isolation protocols, the UCLA team was the first group to efficiently isolate significant numbers of perivascular or specialized blood vessel stem cells from routine cosmetic liposuction material. This finding opens the door for easily obtaining large numbers of purified stem cells for both immediate and future use. Our faculty discovered that combining Nell1 with perivascular stem cells increases stem cell survival and markedly enhances musculoskeletal tissue repair. This finding paves the way for efficiently isolating a patient’s own stem cells from liposuction and then reapplying those cells with Nell1 to maximally “jumpstart” the reparative process after injury.