Summary: University of Montana researchers have pioneered a novel method to generate human cartilage in the head and neck region by inducing stem cells to transform into craniofacial cartilage, offering potential solutions for cartilage regeneration and transplantation.

Key Takeways

  1. Innovative cartilage production: UM researchers have developed a pioneering technique to generate human cartilage in the head and neck region by inducing stem cells to transform into craniofacial cartilage, offering potential solutions for regenerative medicine.
  2. Potential for cartilage regeneration: With a focus on addressing the urgent need for new cartilage regeneration methods, particularly for children with craniofacial anomalies, laboratory-grown cartilage offers hope for effective treatments in the future.
  3. Challenges in facial reconstruction: Current plastic surgery techniques face difficulties in authentically reconstructing natural facial features, highlighting the importance of developing alternative methods like harnessing patient-derived stem cells for laboratory-based cartilage production, aiming to overcome tissue rejection issues and pave the way for transplantation.


The University of Montana (U-M) researchers and their collaborators have pioneered a groundbreaking approach to produce human cartilage in the head and neck region. Mark Grimes, PhD, a biology professor at UM’s Division of Biological Sciences, reveals their breakthrough in inducing stem cells to transform into the specialized cell type constituting human craniofacial cartilage. Stem cells possess the remarkable ability to self-renew and differentiate into diverse cell types.

Grimes elaborates, “The cells responsible for forming this particular cartilage type are known as neural crest cells. Through our innovative method, we’ve successfully generated craniofacial organoids from these neural crest cells.” Organoids, serving as miniature replicas of organs, faithfully replicate the structural and genetic characteristics of their counterparts. They offer a valuable model for studying specific human tissues, providing insights otherwise inaccessible through direct human tissue examination.

Groundbreaking Cartilage Regeneration Techniques

Highlighting the urgent demand for novel cartilage regeneration techniques, especially for the 230,000 children born annually in the U.S. with craniofacial anomalies, Grimes emphasizes the potential of laboratory-grown cartilage in facilitating effective treatments for injuries affecting craniofacial cartilage.

The research team delves into analyzing gene expression data at both RNA and protein levels to unravel the mechanisms governing the differentiation of stem cells into cartilage cells. Their investigation unveils the intricate communication among stem cells during the initial phases, leading to the formation of elastic cartilage, prevalent in human ears.

This achievement is underpinned by comprehensive analysis of biological markers and the application of machine-learning pattern recognition techniques to decipher the intricate cell signaling pathways involved in cartilage differentiation.

Plastic Surgery’s Struggle with Facial Reconstruction

Current plastic surgery techniques struggle to authentically reconstruct natural facial features like ears, nose, or larynx, often resulting in tissue rejection without immunosuppressant drugs.

“To harness patient-derived stem cells for laboratory-based craniofacial cartilage production, a deep understanding of the human-specific differentiation mechanisms is imperative,” Grimes says. “Our ultimate goal is to devise a protocol for craniofacial cartilage generation utilizing human stem cells, paving the way for transplantation.”