Stem cells 'nanokicked' to grow new bone

Cells are vibrated by billionths of a metre, 1,000 times a second

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Are your stem cells not doing what you want them to? Give them a kicking.

That is the new technique developed by a Scottish research team, a technique which could help patients with spinal injuries grow new bone.

They call it "nanokicking". It plays on the potential our bodies' stem cells possess to turn into any other kind of tissue - blood, muscle or, in this case, bone.

Persuading stem cells to become bone has been done in the laboratory before. But existing techniques typically involve complex and expensive engineering or cocktails of chemicals.

The Scottish team, drawn from the universities of Glasgow, Strathclyde and the West of Scotland, is instead mimicking a natural process - when broken bones need to knit, they vibrate.

In his laboratory at Glasgow University, Dr Matt Dalby opens an incubator to show me how they do it.

"In here we have the cells being nanokicked," he says.

"Here in the Petri dishes, the stems cells are growing.

"The piezo ceramics that are attached underneath are kicking the cells a thousand times a second, by around about 20 nanometres."

Stem cells before and after they have been "nanokicked" After the stem cells are "nanokicked" they turn into bone cells

Given that a nanometre is a billionth of a metre you might not consider that much of a kicking - more of a gentle tickle, perhaps.

But it's enough to give stem cells the hint to start becoming bone.

And because the stem cells are drawn from a patient's own bone marrow, the question of rejection doesn't arise.

The project spans the scientific disciplines. Cell engineering and medicine you might expect, but astrophysics is the wild card here.

Dr Stuart Reid, now of the University of the West of Scotland, honed his measurement skills in astrophysics, as part of the race to detect gravity waves.

"We're using lasers to try to measure the amount of kicking that we're giving to the stem cell cultures," he says.

Dr Matt Dalby Dr Matt Dalby said the technique mimics a natural process

"Here we're using the wavelength of light to be our metre stick to measure the kicks down to nanoscale levels."

Looking for gravity waves requires making minute measurements over distances of kilometres. The measurement of nanokicking uses much smaller equipment. But the principles are the same and the measurements remain achingly small.

They must be accurate to a tiny fraction of the diameter of a proton.

Dr Reid tries to give me an idea of the scale.

"If you take one cell and blow it up to the size of a football, then the amount we're shaking the cells is the same as sliding one sheet of paper in and out from the bottom."

'Horrible maths'

Now that they've grown bone in the laboratory the team are looking to apply their technique more widely.

Nanokicking could give us insights into the ageing process.

New bones could be built from a patient's own cells and used to repair injuries.

And in future it may be possible to scale up the process.

Instead of clusters of cells, entire patients could be vibrated to help them regenerate their bones, although Dr Dalby admits there is "some horrible maths" involved in that idea.

Nevertheless the team are already co-operating with Glasgow's Southern General Hospital in the hope that one day we may see patients with spinal injuries being nanokicked to recovery.

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