Ribs hold the key to better bone healing

Specialized “messenger” cells around damaged ribs encourage faster, more effective bone repair.

Special hybrid cells are essential for large-scale repair in the rib. These cells (yellow) co-express genes normally associated with cartilage (green) and bone (red). Image credit: Kuwahara et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Fractures to major bones often heal slowly or incompletely, especially in older people, and large bone injuries do not repair naturally. By comparison, rib bones show an unusual capacity to regrow and repair themselves even when a large portion is damaged. Previous research suggests that the connective tissue around the ribs helps to support and co-ordinate bone healing. Yet it is currently not clear why ribs have a greater capacity to repair these large injuries compared to other bones.

Kuwahara et al. have now examined bone repair by studying how ribs heal in mice. The experiments show that around 6% of the connective tissue cells are critical for large-scale repair. Kuwahara et al. named these cells messenger cells. These cells detect the presence of a signal molecule called Hedgehog (Hh), however, if these cells lose the ability to respond to the Hh molecules, the ribs do not heal properly. Further examination revealed that these messenger cells co-ordinate repair by encouraging other cells to build a special kind of bone-healing tissue with hybrid properties of both cartilage and bone.

Further research could now examine how messenger cells co-ordinate healing and if their properties could be adapted to help repair other bones. Ultimately, understanding how messenger cells work may even provide insights into new ways to repair and regenerate other tissues and organs too.