Worldwide, one person breaks a bone every three seconds due to a disease called osteoporosis, a common condition that weakens the bones of at least 10 million people in the United States alone.
And as the concept of manned space missions to the Moon and Mars gains momentum, scientists are actively looking for ways to protect astronauts from the inevitable consequences of long-duration spaceflight, including a sharp decrease in bone density.
While most drugs used to treat osteoporosis work by slowing the disease, a new approach that targets new bone formation has shown promising results. In addition, these results were obtained in mice during an experiment aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
The researchers used a well-known protein produced by the body called NELL-like molecule-1 (NELL-1), which had previously proved the promotion bone formation in some animal models. Because the drug works by only using this protein when injected into the affected bone during surgery, researchers have modified the drug so that it can be injected under the skin to promote bone formation throughout the body, according to new research.
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“If confirmed in human studies, BP-NELL-PEG could be a promising tool in the fight against bone loss and musculoskeletal deterioration, especially when conventional resistance training is not feasible due to injuries or other disabling factors,” said Professor Dr. Kang Ting. at the Forsyth Institute in Massachusetts and co-author of the new study, reported recently declaration published on September 18. Dr. Ting first discovered the bone-forming effects of NELL-1 more than 20 years ago.
The new study also boosted the drug’s potential by increasing its half-life, which determines how long the drug can last in the body. In this case, the half-life almost tripled from 5.5 hours to 15.5 hours. The modified drug, called BP-NELL-PEG, “exhibited excellent specificity for bone tissue without causing observable adverse effects,” the researchers said in a recent statement.
“We can definitely say that NELL-1 increases bone density in microgravity, which is very exciting,” said Chia Soo, a professor in the Department of Surgery and Orthopedic Surgery at UCLA and lead author of the new study. in declaration about the drug in 2018. “This success demonstrates the robustness of the therapy to treat extreme bone loss.”
To test the drug’s effects on spaceflight-induced bone loss, the researchers flew 40 female mice to the ISS in 2017 and observed another 40 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida who were treated with the drug but not exposed to the conditions of spaceflight.
Both groups “showed a significant increase in bone formation,” the researchers said in a recent statement.
Of the 40 mice on the ISS, 20 returned to Earth alive after 4.5 weeks, while the other half were exposed to microgravity for nine weeks, according to the new study. This is the first time live mice have been returned to Earth, which was important for the team to conduct analysis of living tissues and cells.
While the drug showed promising results in mice, there is still a long way to go before it can be used to promote bone formation in humans.
“We want to look at how to make this a better treatment for osteoporosis for eventual clinical application,” Soo said. “Not only for the millions of osteoporosis patients on Earth, but also when thinking about future space travel and missions to Mars, we want to see how we can prevent the harmful effects of microgravity on bones during spaceflight.”
The research is described in paper published Monday (September 18) in the npj journal Microgravity.