Mesenchymal stem cells possess a cell-surface protein called ALK2. ALK2 acts as a receptor for bone-inducing growth factors. ALK2, for example, is expressed in cartilage and if mesenchymal stem cells express a constantly-active form of ALK2, known as caALK2, these cells are driven to become cartilage-making cells (known as chondrocytes).
Can this receptor be used to drive bone formation? It turns out that manipulating ALK2 can drive fat-based stem cells (ASCs) to become bone making cells that ultimately improve bone tissue engineering. Researchers from the laboratory of Benjamin Levi at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts have fiddled with ALK2 in mesenchymal stem cells to for formation of bone from ASCs, and to enhance bone regeneration in a living animal.
To do this, Levi’s team genetically manipulated mice so that they expressed a form of ALK2 that was constantly turned on known as caALK2. The fat-based MSCs were then isolated and analyzed for their ability to make bone in culture. caALK ASCs were much more responsive to bone-inducing growth factors. These cells also expressed a whole host of bone-specific genes (e.g., Alp, Runx2, Ocn, Ops) after seven days. Since the caALK2 MSCs did so well in culture, they were then tested in mice with skull defects. Bone formation was significantly higher in mice treated with caALK2-expressing ASCs than those treated with normal ASCs.
Thus, Levi’s laboratory has shown that by treating mice with fat-based stem cells that express a constitutively active ALK2 receptor showed significantly increased bone formation. This increased bone formation can also be harnessed to improve skull healing in mice with bone defects.