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Institute for Life SciencesHealth & Medicine

Repair and Stem Cells

Stem cells are one of the body’s best tools for repairing damage to bone or tissue due to their ability to develop into different types of cells. In regenerative medicine applications, the cells that generate new tissue can either reside within the patient or be administered as a therapy.  University of Southampton scientists are developing innovative techniques that use stem cells, materials and drugs to orchestrate cells to regenerate tissue.

Image Credit: Prof Richard Oreffo
Image credit: Prof Richard Oreffo
Bone cells. Image: Prof Richard Oreffo

For the past 20 years our clinicians and biomedical and engineering scientists have been working together to use stem cells to regrow human bone and skeletal tissue. Much of our work has been to understand the biological mechanisms of how stem cells operate, bone development and skeletal function, which has led to an expanded body of work to develop approaches that drive, aid, inform and enhance tissue repair and regeneration across the lifecourse.

To do this it is necessary to enrich the skeletal stem cells and to engineer materials and devices that manipulate and stimulate stem cell behaviour.

We are doing this in three approaches:

Delivering stems cells at the point of injury:  We have pioneered the use of skeletal stem cells (SSC) within a transplanted piece of bone, to treat bone diseases, such as avascular necrosis of the femoral head in which part of the bone dies due to a lack of blood supply. This results in the regeneration of bone structurally and functionally analogous to normal trabecular bone. We now seek to develop innovative approaches harnessing a patient’s own bone stem cells at the point of injury with scaffolds including innovative 3D Print approaches. 

Combining stem cells with a vehicle: We are developing new approaches to present skeletal stem cells to the site of need, whether they are encapsulated within a scaffold material or by using drug and cell loaded capsule technology, for example within clays or nano and macro-droplets.

Acellular: We are working in collaboration with partners within UKRMP II (UK Regenerative Medicine Platform) as well as across interdisciplinary University teams, to develop new 3D structured, smart bio responsive materials for skeletal repair. These may be injectable and functionalised materials or hold select drug delivery for applications in skeletal repair.

The University of Southampton has a successful track-record in taking basic scientific discoveries and translating them into clinical practice. Our work in regenerative medicine and stem cells is no exception. We have now treated more than 20 patients with our innovative stem cell research and completed the UK’s first hip surgery with a 3D printed implant and bone stem cell graft.

As the world’s population grows older the rates of bone and joint illness or injury rise.  Indeed, medical advances have led to a welcome increase in life expectancy – by 2020, 20 per cent of the population will be over 65. However, this progress presents its own new challenges: increases in age-related diseases, and associated reductions in quality of life at substantial socio-economic cost. Bone fractures alone cost the European economy €17 billion and the US economy $20 billion annually. More worryingly, a bone fracture as a consequence of osteoporosis occurs every three seconds worldwide.


New treatments that enable the skeleton to heal better are urgently needed to meet this escalating need and Southampton is at the forefront of this exciting field.

Related Staff Member

Making bone in the lab

Centre for Human Development, Stem Cells and Regeneration (CHDSCR)


Please see a selection of postgraduate courses related to this subject area below. 

For the full range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses at the University of Southampton, please visit our courses webpages

Masters of Research

The MRes offers exciting opportunities to develop advanced scientific, research and transferable skills required to become an independent researcher in Stem Cells, Development & Regenerative Medicine.

MSc Global Health

The MSc in Global Health is a research-led, interdisciplinary degree programme designed to to understand, interpret and solve critical global health challenges.

PhD Programme

Our four year Integrated PhD in Biomedical Science - Cell Biology and Immunology of Cancer degree has been designed to produce the next generation of leaders in cancer research

iPhD Biomedical Science

Our four year Integrated PhD in Biomedical Science - Cell Biology and Immunology of Cancer degree has been designed to produce the next generation of leaders in cancer research

MSc Genomic Medicine

This MSc includes study of the genomics and informatics of rare and common diseases, cancer and infectious diseases.

Photo of Howard Tribe
Current treatments for damaged articular cartilage don’t work very well and I am passionate about finding a better treatment by regenerating articular cartilage.
Howard Tribe

Identify stem cells for regeneration

Cell-based therapies are some of the most exciting and promising areas of treatments for bone disease but despite intensive research no reliable methods to sufficiently enrich the rare bone stem cells, known as skeletal stem cells, which are needed for these strategies, have been developed.

Our scientists in the Bone and Joint Research Group, are tackling this challenge by combining stem cell biology, innovative chemistry and statistical methods and the latest approaches to identify and bring cells together to enrich and isolate the bone stem cells. In our latest project funded by the BBSRC, we are using a novel single cell identification procedure that produces a "barcode" for each cell alongside unique cell sorting devices and nano-probes to allow us to refine our cell selection. The nano-probes tag the cells, so they can be separated and examined to assess their ability to make bone and cartilage. We are combining smart nanoparticles with the ability to sense these unique bar codes (mRNA signatures in live cells in real time), to identify the bone stem and progenitor bone populations and then determining their function and therapeutic application.

This exciting programme of research offers the ability to isolate the human bone stem cell and provide substantially enriched, and potentially pure populations of bone stem cells so we can devise new ways of specifically choosing the best stem cells to regrow human bone or tissue.

Contact: Prof Richard Oreffo

Bubbles to bond broken bones

Bone fractures are major challenge for society costing the UK economy around £2billion per year. Up to 10 per cent of this cost can be attributed to patients needing surgery and extensive rehabilitation due to the injury not healing appropriately with current clinical treatments. There is now an urgent need to find minimally invasive and cost-effective treatment to prevent unnecessary surgery from taking place.

We have assembled a world-leading interdisciplinary team comprising experts in ultrasound and drug release, bone repair, stem cell biology and nanoparticle chemistry, to address this need by investigating the potential for targeted drug delivery at the site of injury via bubbles. Our researchers are loading nanodroplets, which is equivalent to a 1000th of the width of a human hair, with drugs that promote bone healing and then using ultrasound to expand and pop the nanodroplets to release the drugs into the body. We are engineering the nanodroplets to accumulate at the site of injury so the drugs can be released at the right location and importantly at the right time to ensure effective healing.

Throughout this project we are working alongside clinicians specialising in bone fracture treatment and industry to ensure that our research has a translational approach in that our discoveries will positive impact on clinical practice.

ContactDr Nick Evans, Dr Dario Carugo

Image credit: Dr Nick Evans, Dr Dario Carugo
Nanoparticles inside a human cell (yellow) & the cell nucleus in blue

Mixing stem cells with clay to regenerate human tissue

For years researchers have known about the ability of clay particles to bind biological molecules. It is a process that is already used in the design of tablets to carefully control the release and action of a drug. Our scientists are investigating whether this ability can be harnessed to encourage stem cells to grow new tissue.

With a grant from the ESPRC the team are using gels formed from clay particles to precisely control the provision of the powerful signalling molecules that stimulate stem cells to regenerate diseased or damaged tissue in the body. The approach is being explored as a way to regenerate bone to treat non-healing fractures or hip replacement failure.

Clay offers an exciting prospect for tissue regeneration because its rich electrostatic properties. These properties could overcome two challenges in the development of stem-cell based regenerative therapies. 
The first challenge – to deliver and hold stem cells at the right location in the body – can be met by the ability of clay to self-organise into gels via the electrostatic interactions of the particles with each other. Stem cells mixed with a low concentration of clay particles in water, can be injected into the body and spontaneously set into a gel that provides a temporary scaffold within which new replacement tissues, such as bone, can form. The ability to create injectable tissues in this way could eliminate, in some situations, the need for surgery. 
 While several gels and scaffold materials have been designed to deliver and hold stem cells at the site of regeneration, the ability of clay nanoparticles to overcome a second critical hurdle facing stem-cell therapy is what makes them especially promising. The biological molecules used to stimulate stem cells currently need to be used at very high concentrations in order to be effective. Because of the ability of clay gels to bind these molecules and stabilise them for long periods at the site of injury, these powerful stimulatory molecules can be used more safely, effectively and at lower cost.    

 Contact: Dr Jon Dawson, Renovos

The UKRMP2 Smart Materials Hub

Our researchers are playing a key role in a new UK-wide initiative that aims to develop the next generation of bioactive scaffolds and biomatrices to treat the eye, musculoskeletal system and the liver.

The UKRMP2 Hub, of which Prof Richard Oreffo is Deputy Director, is using state of the art manufacturing processes and therapeutic strategies, supporting their translation to the clinic. Our scientists’ involvement primarily focuses on the development and evaluation in preclinical animal models of a range of smart bio-responsive materials including gels, 3D printed scaffolds and drug delivery systems, to solve unmet clinical needs in bone and cartilage repair.

Musculoskeletal disorders affect ten million people across the UK with an NHS cost of more than £5 billion. The Hub aims to complete pre-clinical evaluation of biomaterial candidates in small to large animal models for lower limb and osteochondral applications to relieve this societal and economic burden and to drive these materials along the patient pathway within five years.

UKRMP II Acellular HUB 

Contact: Prof Richard Oreffo

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