Department of Bone & Skeleton Research

The vertebral skeleton has various important functions; it is an essential part of the musculoskeletal system and enables us to walk upright, it protects internal organs and serves as a calcium and phosphate store and it has recently been shown to function as an endocrine organ.

During embryonic development, the majority of the skeletal bony elements are prefigured in their future shape and size as cartilage matrices. These cartilage matrices then need to be converted into bone during the later developmental stages. This process is known as endochondral ossification. It requires, on the one hand, the regulated process of chondrocyte differentiation and, on the other hand, communication between chondrocytes and the surrounding tissue in order to coordinate the differentiation and further maturation of osteoblasts, the bone forming cells. Disturbances in these processes can affect the longitudinal growth or bone stability. Our research focuses on deciphering the complex functions of the canonical Wnt signaling pathway in the various processes, such as chondrocyte and differentiation and maturation, trabecular bone formation, and synovial joint formation during the embryonic development of the vertebral skeleton. Our research to date has already provided decisive insights into the role of the canonical Wnt signaling pathway in the differentiation of chondrocytes, osteoblasts, and joint progenitor cells.

In the future, we primarily want to uncover the underlying molecular mechanisms. We expect from the research results impulses for targeted differentiation of progenitor cells into certain cell types, e.g. osteoblasts. Furthermore, it is currently assumed that it may be possible to positively modulate degenerative bone changes, such as in Osteoporosis, through the modulation of canonical Wnt signaling. This is mainly based on the observation that genetic mutations in the human LRP5 gene, which encodes for a Wnt coreceptor, result in lower bone mass. Our own studies and those of other laboratories regarding the function of the canonical Wnt signal pathway during embryonic development indicate, however, that its function is very complex and that its activation may, among other things, affect the differentiation status of the cells. The different effects may depend on the strength of activation, although this is not yet confirmed. However, this means that it is important to decipher the exact functions of the canonical Wnt signaling pathway in the different cell types in order to analyze whether different levels of activation have differential effects on cells.