Imagine a world where a bone fracture occurs every three seconds due to a disease known as osteoporosis, weakening the bones of at least 10 million people in the United States alone. This is not a dystopian science fiction novel, but our current reality. As we continue to age, our bones naturally lose their density, becoming more fragile and prone to breakages. However, a new approach that promotes the formation of new bone, rather than merely slowing the disease, has shown promising results in mice during an experiment onboard the International Space Station (ISS).
In the quest for crewed space missions to the moon and Mars, scientists are tirelessly working to protect astronauts from the inevitable consequences of long-term spaceflight, including significant reductions in bone density. A well-known protein produced by the body called NELL-like molecule-1 (NELL-1), which has previously shown to promote bone formation, is being harnessed in a novel way. Instead of being injected directly into the affected bone during surgery, researchers have modified the drug to be injected under the skin, promoting bone formation throughout the body. This groundbreaking research holds the potential to revolutionize the way we combat bone loss on Earth and in space.
The Battle Against Bone Loss: A Space Age Solution
Every three seconds someone across the globe fractures a bone due to osteoporosis, a disease that weakens bones and affects at least 10 million people in the United States alone. With the prospect of manned space missions to the Moon and Mars becoming increasingly likely, scientists are diligently seeking solutions to protect astronauts from the detrimental effects of long-term spaceflight, including significant reductions in bone density.
A New Approach to Combat Osteoporosis
While most osteoporosis treatments focus on slowing the disease’s progression, a novel approach targeting the creation of new bone has shown potential. This promising breakthrough was achieved during an experiment involving mice on the International Space Station (ISS). The researchers utilised a protein known as NELL-like molecule-1 (NELL-1), which has been observed to promote bone formation in some animal models.
Originally, this protein could only be used by injecting it directly into an affected bone during surgery. The scientists modified the drug to allow for subcutaneous injections, promoting bone formation throughout the body. "If human studies bear this out, BP-NELL-PEG could be a promising tool to combat bone loss and musculoskeletal deterioration, especially when conventional resistance training is not feasible due to injuries or other incapacitating factors," stated Dr. Kang Ting, a professor at the Forsyth Institute in Massachusetts.
Enhancing the Drug’s Potential
In addition to modifying the drug’s delivery method, the researchers also managed to extend the drug’s half-life, thus prolonging its presence in the body. The half-life of the modified drug, known as BP-NELL-PEG, increased from 5.5 hours to an impressive 15.5 hours. The scientists reported that BP-NELL-PEG "displayed superior specificity for bone tissue without causing observable adverse effects."
Testing in Outer Space
To evaluate the drug’s potential in combating bone loss in space, researchers sent 40 female mice to the ISS in 2017. An additional 40 mice were kept at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as a control group. Both groups "exhibited a significant increase in bone formation." From the 40 mice on the ISS, 20 were returned to Earth alive after 4.5 weeks, marking the first time live mice were returned from space, enabling researchers to conduct an analysis on live tissues and cells.
The Road Ahead
While these results are promising, there is still a long road to travel before this drug can be used to aid bone formation in humans. "We want to look at how we can make this a better osteoporosis treatment for eventual clinical application," said Chia Soo, a leading author of the study. "We want to see how we can prevent the detrimental effects of microgravity on bones during spaceflight."
This research represents a significant step towards a more effective way to combat osteoporosis and protect astronauts from the harmful effects of long-term spaceflight. The possibility of using the protein NELL-1 to stimulate bone formation throughout the body is promising. However, more research is needed before this drug can be used in humans. The study underscores the importance of ongoing research in this area, not only for the millions of osteoporosis patients on Earth but also for the future of space travel.