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Healing Bone With Stem Cells

Implantable materials that grab stem cells and spur their growth and survival could improve bone-healing surgeries. Linda Griffith and her colleagues// at MIT have created a new tissue-engineering material that could help cells survive the harsh transplant environment--a key step in cell-transplant therapies. Scientists are now testing the material in animals to see how well it can help heal fractures.

"Creating instructional biomaterials like this is an entirely new way of thinking about what could be put in the human body," says Richard Lee, a cardiologist and scientist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston. "It could become an important component of regenerative medicine."

Patients with severe fractures that can't heal on their own typically undergo a painful bone biopsy in which a bone fragment is removed from the hip and then transplanted onto the site of the wound. But improvements to an alternative procedure developed in the past few years could soon make this process obsolete. In the procedure, orthopedic surgeons withdraw bone marrow (which contains bone-forming stem cells) from the patient and then process and transplant those cells onto the fracture without the need for bone biopsy.

Some 40,000 people have already undergone the procedure, but scientists say the technique could be improved by increasing the survival and proliferation of the transplanted cells. "Cells experience a very harsh environment when first transplanted," says George Muschler, an orthopedic surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio, who pioneered development of the bone-marrow transplant technique. "There is little oxygen, it's very acidic, and there are inflammatory factors that might trigger cell death." In addition, only about one in every 20,000 bone-marrow cells is a bone-producing stem cell, making survival of those cells particularly critical.

A new material that stops cell-death signals in t
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