Researchers at Brigham and Women’s hospital have discovered that layered clay—that is, synthetic silicate nanoplatelets used in everything from glass and ceramics to food additives—can induce stem cells to become bone cells without needing any additional bone-inducing factors. In other words, the presence of this synthetic material can coax human stem cells into becoming bone all on its own, and that could have huge implications for the future of tissue engineering.

That’s because we’re getting old. And as the nation (and much of the rest of the world) gets grayer, there’s a prevailing need for more and better materials that can simulate bone in corrective medical implants and other applications (think: hip replacement and the like). Various ceramics and other silicon-based materials are already used in such implants, but the fact that synthetic silicate nanoplatelets could actually stimulate the transformation of stem cells into bone cells opens the door to bioactive filler materials, injectable tissue repair matrixes developed from layered clay, and, more broadly, various therapeutic agents that generate specific stem cell responses (for the engineering of specific bone structures from stem cells).

All that is a ways off, of course, as the mechanisms that control this are still not very well understood. Researchers are now working to better understand the relationship between layered clay and stem cells, and how to turn those into better-performing tissue engineering outcomes.

Harvard Gazette