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New research could help us deliver genes for new bone formation

29 September 2005

UK scientists are working on new methods to regenerate cartilage and bone by delivering genes to stem cells within the body to instruct them to turn into bone cells. The research, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), could lead to a new approach to tissue engineering. With the ageing populations of Western countries it holds the potential of significant benefits for patients needing joint replacement or similar treatments.

The new research will use tiny nanoscopic systems that cross the surface of a stem cell and then deliver the genes into that prompt the cell to turn into a bone cell.

Professor Richard Oreffo at the University of Southampton and Dr Martin Garnett and Professor Kevin Shakesheff at the University of Nottingham are developing scaffolds to act as a coating around the nanoscopic gene delivery systems. The scaffold controls the release of the gene delivery systems to generate the prolonged formation and development of bone tissue.

The research teams are using the scaffold technology to develop therapeutic applications. They are investigating the most efficient and effective combinations of genes and delivery scaffold to trigger the highly complex process of bone formation. The technique, if successful, could provide a new source of bone tissue for orthopaedic procedures.

Professor Richard Oreffo, who is leading the team at the University of Southampton, said, “The key to the process is careful selection of the right genes for the job, and then identifying the right scaffold delivery mechanism to deliver the genes to enough stem cells to initiate the bone formation process. This method of gene delivery could provide significant healthcare benefits as trauma, degenerative disease and bone loss with old age all lead to patients needing orthopaedic procedures that require new bone.

Professor Oreffo added “It is important that we explore the potential of new methods and biotechnologies to help meet the healthcare needs of an ageing population. Although research such as this is currently a number of years from being available to patients it is important that fundamental research is carried out so we can develop the knowledge that can lead to clinical applications.”


Notes to editors

This story appear in the October 2005 edition of Business, the quarterly magazine of research highlights from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). BBSRC Business carries stories about the activities of the Research Council and highlights from its research portfolio.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

About the University of Southampton

The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University has around 20,000 students and 5000 staff, and an annual turnover of over £270 million.


Click on the thumbnails to view and download full-size images.

Current commercial methods permit gene delivery to human cells, as shown in this figure of cultured human bone marrow cells that have had a bacterial gene (lac Z) inserted using lipofectamine. When stained for ß-galactosidase (blue) a number of cells are positive for the bacterial gene. It is important to note many commercial transfection agents are associated with a degree of toxicity limiting in vivo application. (384 KB)

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Gene delivery using polymers developed in Nottingham in complex with the bacterial lac Z gene. Cells (CHO cells) expressing lacZ can be observed (blue). (324 KB)

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Demonstration that polymer complexes with foreign DNA are not toxic to the cells. Human bone cell line (SaOS) stained for living (green) and dead (red) cells 48 hours after addition of the polymer/DNA complex. All cells are living and demonstrate little or no toxic effects form addition of the polymer / DNA complex. (70 KB)

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Note that these images are protected by copyright law and may be used with acknowledgement of BBSRC, University of Nottingham and University of Southampton.

External contact

Professor Richard Oreffo, University of Southampton

tel: 023 8079 8502

Professor Kevin Shakesheff, University of Nottingham

tel: 0115 951 5104


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382