Scientists have used stem cells for everything from regrowing corneas to inducing the heart to repair itself, and it might even be possible to use them to heal damaged lungs. Now, researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center have, for the first time, successfully identified a population of stem cells capable of inducing the repair of bones in the skull and face.

The researchers, led by Professor of Biomedical Genetics Wei Hsu, began their work with the goal of gaining a better understanding of a condition called craniosynostosis. A skull deformity in infants, the condition can slow development in affected children and can even be life-threatening, causing increased pressure on the brain.

Bones in the head develop differently to those in the rest of the body, with an entirely different set of stem cells responsible for the growth. Up until now, we’ve not been able to isolate the cell population responsible for instigating bone growth and repair in the skull and facial bones, making it difficult to treat conditions such as craniosynostosis.

In an effort to change that, the University of Rochester team turned to a gene known as Axin2, which they were drawn to thanks to its unique expression pattern. After carefully studying a population of Axin2-expressing cells located in a suture in the skull, and following a series of tests on mice, the researchers were able to confirm long-term self-renewing, cloning and differentiating abilities.

In short, they confirmed that cells within Axin2-expressing populations were, by definition, stem cells, with the ability to instigate bone development, repair and regeneration.

Though significant testing will be required before human trials could be considered, the successful identification of stem cells capable of skull formation and craniofacial bone repair is a huge step. The research opens the door to using stem cells for facial bone reconstruction, providing real hope for patients suffering from dangerous conditions such as craniosynotosis.

The research is published in the journal Nature Communications

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