BACKGROUND: Nanomaterials have unique advantages in controlling stem cell function due to their biomimetic characteristics and special biological and mechanical properties. Controlling adhesion and differentiation of stem cells is critical for tissue regeneration. METHODS: This in vitro study investigated the effects of nano-hydroxyapatite, nano-hydroxyapatite-polylactide- co-glycolide (PLGA) composites, and a bone morphogenetic protein (BMP-7)- derived short peptide (DIF-7c) on osteogenic differentiation of human mesenchymal stem cells (MSC). The peptide was chemically functionalized onto nano-hydroxyapatite, incorporated into a nanophase hydroxyapatite-PLGA composite or PLGA control, or directly injected into culture media. RESULTS: Unlike the PLGA control, the nano-hydroxyapatite-PLGA composites promoted adhesion of human MSC. Importantly, nano-hydroxyapatite and nano-hydroxyapatite-PLGA composites promoted osteogenic differentiation of human MSCs, comparable with direct injection of the DIF-7c peptide into culture media. CONCLUSION: Nano-hydroxyapatite and nano-hydroxyapatite-PLGA composites provide a promising alternative in directing the adhesion and differentiation of human MSC. These nanocomposites should be studied further to clarify their effects on MSC functions and bone remodeling in vivo, eventually translating to clinical applications.