The 'nanokicks' are in fact high frequency vibrations which encourage the transformation. The technique is at its earliest experimental stage but researchers say it may one day allow a patient's own stem cells to contribute to bone repair.
Dr Matt Dalby from the Centre for Cell Engineering at the University of Glasgow, who led the study, said that the research 'provides a simple method of converting adult stem cells from the bone marrow into bone-making cells on a large scale without the use of cocktails of chemicals or recourse to challenging and complex engineering'. This is a reference to more conventional techniques by which specialised cells can be produced from stem cells.
The process of bone formation in the human body - osteoblastogenesis - normally involves the vibration of mesenchymal stem cell membranes as they adhere and join together to form bone tissue. Nanokicking mimics the frequency of this vibration with kicks to the stem cells of between five and 30 nanometres, 1,000 times per second.
'If you take one cell and blow it up to the size of a football, then the amount we're shaking the cells is the same as sliding one sheet of paper in and out from the bottom,' co-author Dr Stuart Reid, from the Thin Film Centre at the University of the West of Scotland told the BBC.
To ensure that they were delivering the nanokicks at the right frequency, the study borrowed a technique from astrophysics called laser interferometry. This technique, a statement from the University of Glasgow says, is more often used 'to detect tiny ripples in space-time caused by gravitational waves'.
Despite the need for such hi-tech equipment, the paper says that were the technique to be used clinically, it would be 'easy to envisage [the technology] being up-scaled to form large-scale osteoblast bioreactors'.
Engineers at the Queen Elizabeth National Spinal Injuries Unit at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow are currently investigating the technology as a potential therapy for spinal cord injuries.
Dr Sylvie Coupaud, from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Strathclyde, who was not one of the paper's authors, also noted that people of reduced mobility are at risk of developing osteoporosis because they are unable to exercise. Nanokicking, Dr Coupaud said, 'could be applied to stimulate bone formation and maintain bone health in these patients, as an alternative to traditional exercise'.
The study was published in the journal ACS Nano.