Novel model of in vitro osteocytogenesis induced by retinoic acid treatment

D. Mattinzoli, P. Messa, A. Corbelli, M. Ikehata, C. Zennaro, S. Armelloni, M. Li, L. Giardino, M. P. Rastaldi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite recent research which more and more stresses the importance of osteocytes in regulating bone and systemic mineral metabolism, current molecular and functional knowledge of osteocyte properties are still incomplete, mostly due to limited availability of in vitro models. Osteocytes are terminally differentiated dendritic cells, and therefore are not easy to obtain and maintain in primary cultures. As an alternative, osteocyte differentiation can be induced by progressive osteoblast embedding in mineralised extracellular matrix. In this model, which is suitable for reproduction of bone development, the presence of calcified matrix prevents several cell biological methods from being used. Therefore, the osteocyte-like MLO-Y4 cell line continues to be the most widely used cellular system. Here we show that treatment of primary osteoblasts or MC3T3-E1 cells with retinoic acid generates a homogeneous population of ramified cells with osteocyte features, as confirmed by morphological and molecular analyses. The first morphological changes are detectable in primary cells after 2 days of treatment, and in the cell line after 4 days of treatment. Differentiation is complete in 5 and 10 days, respectively, with progressive development of dendrites, loss of the ability to produce extracellular matrix, down-regulation of osteoblast markers, and up-regulation of osteocyte-specific molecules, most notably among them sclerostin. Compared to other published protocols, our method has a number of advantages. It is easy to perform and does not require special instrumentation, it is highly reproducible, and rapidly generates a mature osteocyte population in the complete absence of extracellular matrix, allowing the use of these cells for unlimited biological applications.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)403-425
Number of pages23
JournalEuropean Cells and Materials
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2012


  • Melatonin
  • Osteoblast
  • Osteocyte
  • Retinoic acid
  • Sclerostin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Cell Biology
  • Bioengineering
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Biomaterials
  • Medicine(all)


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