Stem cells in bone marrow need to produce hydrogen sulfide to properly multiply and form bone tissue, according to a new study from the Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology at the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

Professor Songtao Shi, principal investigator on the project, said the presence of hydrogen sulfide produced by the cells governs the flow of calcium ions. The essential ions activate a chain of cellular signals that results in osteogenesis — the creation of new bone tissue — and keeps the breakdown of old bone tissue at a proper level.

Conversely, having a hydrogen sulfide deficiency disrupted bone homeostasis and resulted in a condition similar to osteoporosis — weakened, brittle bones — in experimental mice. In humans, osteoporosis can cause bone fractures, mobility limitations and spinal problems. More than 52 million Americans have or are at risk for the disease.

Future treatments possible

However, Shi and his team demonstrated that the mice’s condition could be rescued by administering small molecules that release hydrogen sulfide inside the body. The results indicated that a similar treatment may have potential to help human patients, Shi said.

“These results demonstrate hydrogen sulfide regulates bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells and restoring hydrogen sulfide levels via nontoxic donors may provide treatments for diseases such as osteoporosis, which can arise from hydrogen sulfide deficiencies,” Shi said.

The study was published online on April 10 in Cell Stem Cell. The work was supported by grants from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services (grant numbers R01DE017449 and R01 DE019932), from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (81222011) and from the Science and Technology Activities of Beijing Overseas Students Preferred Foundation.

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