A study conducted by researchers in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the College of Medicine at Texas A&M University identifies the crucial role of minerals in regulating gene expression, thus controlling the number of proteins that a cell should make, promoting tissue regeneration and redefining cellular identity.
Minerals are inorganic elements that play many vital roles, working interactively with vitamins, enzymes, hormones and other nutrient cofactors to regulate thousands of the body’s biological functions. While several minerals have been shown to regulate gene expression and cellular activity, very little work has focused on understanding underlying molecular mechanisms.
In the research, a new class of mineral-based nanoparticles has been introduced to direct human stem cells toward bone cells. These nanoparticles are known specifically as nano silicates, and with them, the team can determine the role of minerals in regulating gene expression profiles to direct stem cell differentiation. These nano silicates are disc-shaped mineral-nanoparticles 20-30 nanometers (nm) in diameter and 1-2 nm in thickness. These nanoparticles are highly biocompatible and are readily eaten up by cells. Once inside the cell body, these nanoparticles slowly dissolve into individual minerals such as silicon, magnesium and lithium.
Nanosilicates dissociate into individual minerals inside the cells and turn "on" a set of key genes that result in information flow throughout the cells, known as signalling pathways. These signalling pathways are responsible for instructing the cells to take on specific functions, such as converting into another type of cells or starting the healing process by secreting tissue-specific proteins known as extracellular matrix.
One of the major findings of this study is that minerals such as silicon, magnesium and lithium are involved in inducing endochondral ossification, a process by which stem cells are transformed into soft and hard tissues such as cartilage and bone in young humans.