Aging results in a decline of physiological functions and in reduced repair capacities, in part due to impaired regenerative power of stem cells, influenced by the systemic environment. In particular osteogenic differentiation capacity (ODC) of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) has been shown to decrease with age, thereby contributing to reduced bone formation and an increased fracture risk.

Searching for systemic factors that might contribute to this age related decline of regenerative capacity led us to investigate plasma-derived extracellular vesicles (EVs). EVs of the elderly were found to inhibit osteogenesis compared to those of young individuals. By analyzing the differences in the vesicular content Galectin-3 was shown to be reduced in elderly-derived vesicles. While overexpression of Galectin-3 resulted in an enhanced ODC of MSCs, siRNA against Galectin-3 reduced osteogenesis. Modulation of intravesicular Galectin-3 levels correlated with an altered osteo-inductive potential indicating that vesicular Galectin-3 contributes to the biological response of MSCs to EVs. By site-directed mutagenesis we identified a phosphorylation-site on Galectin-3 mediating this effect. Finally, we showed that cell penetrating peptides comprising this phosphorylation-site are sufficient to increase ODC in MSCs. Therefore, we suggest that decrease of Galectin-3 in the plasma of elderly contributes to the age-related loss of ODC.