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Protein Potential

Posted on February 2, 2019

A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports elaborates on research performed at Johns Hopkins Medicine that could lead to a new way to build bone.

The Johns Hopkins researchers’ work adds evidence to earlier research into manipulating the cellular protein known as WISP-1. The researchers believe this new ability to create bone could help heal fractures and reduce post-surgical recovery times. They also think the protocol could be a new way to slow down or prevent bone loss that occurs as a result of the natural aging process.

Bone loss, also known as osteoporosis, leaves the bone brittle and at risk of fractures. For older individuals, bone breaks can be serious.

“Breaking a bone when you’re 20 and breaking a bone when you’re 70 are significantly different,” said Dr. Joel Singer, a New York physician.

The difference?

“The body does not create bone cells as readily when you’re older,” Singer said.

Slow bone cell production translates to slow healing. Additionally, bones that have been fractured are weaker after healing than bones that have stayed intact. This means they are subject to additional breaks.

During their research, the study authors used engineered stem cells to prevent the body from producing WISP-1 protein. They examined the cells to see how they behaved and found that four of the genes responsible for the formation of fat cells were at activity levels 50 to 200 percent higher than control cells with the WISP-1 protein.

They then created human fat tissue cells with the capability of producing more WISP-1 protein than regular cells. In these cells, the researchers noticed that the genes that controlled bone cell formation were twice as active than regular cells. Fat-creating gene activity was reduced by 42 percent.

The Next Step

After observing the impacts of manipulating the WISP-1 protein on genetic activity, the researchers tested it on rats to see if their work could be used to improve the speed of bone healing.

The researchers used rats that had undergone spinal fusion, a procedure that is performed on humans in order to reduce pain or restore stability in the back by connecting vertebrae using a metal rod. The goal of the procedure is to strengthen the back as the connected vertebrae grow into a single bone.

There are 391,000 spinal fusions performed in the United States each year, according to the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

On average, the recovery time for spinal fusion is between four and six weeks. Individuals undergoing the procedure face long periods of downtime to facilitate healing.

By improving healing times, the Johns Hopkins researchers hope to reduce the risk of complications.

“All surgeries have risks associated with them, including the risk of infection,” Singer said.

The researchers injected human stem cells with the WISP-1 protein in between the newly fused vertebra of the rats.

Four weeks later, the scientists saw that in addition to high levels of the WISP-1 protein, new bone cells were forming in the treated rats.

Bone fusion did not occur in rats that did not receive the WISP-1 injection in the four weeks after the study.

These results show evidence that WISP-1 could be beneficial for speeding up bone injuries.

About 1.5 million Americans experience a bone disease-related fracture every year, according to the Office of the Surgeon General.

The study authors also hope that WISP-1 could be used to induce the body to produce more fat cells, which could be used to treat soft-tissue wounds.


Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Stem cell signal drives new bone building: If harnessed in people, it could speed recovery for bone breaks, spinal fusions, osteoporosis.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 January 2019.


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