After age 50, people begin losing bone mass in a common condition called osteoporosis. Consequently, this makes it more likely for senior citizens to break a bone. Trying to strengthen and, in many cases, regrow bone are the mainstays of treatment for bone loss.
Stimulating bone growth
UCLA has made major research advances toward regrowing bone. Chia Soo, MD, professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery and orthopedic surgery, has led and participated in numerous research teams to develop new ways of treating bone loss.
Currently, a protein called BMP2 (bone morphogenetic protein-2) is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make bone. But that protein still has safety concerns; high concentrations can have serious side effects, including abnormal and inconsistent bone growth.
Another protein, discovered by UCLA researcher Kang Ting, DMD, D.Med.Sc., has shown similar promise for regrowing bone but without the harmful side effects of BMP2. News-Medical reports that the latest research by Dr. Soo and her colleagues combined BMP2 with the new protein, NELL-1, to stimulate bone growth more safely.
"The two proteins work through different pathways to promote bone growth," Dr. Soo says. "We wanted to see whether working through two different pathways results in better bone or faster bone growth."
The results, seen in animal models, were positive and show promise for future treatment options. Getting regulatory approval for proteins is tough, though, so UCLA researchers will continue to search for ways to activate the signaling pathways that lead to bone growth.
"We are looking at more simplified ways to deliver the results of this combination therapy without two complicated growth factors," she says.
The research process
Dr. Soo is also the research director for UCLA Operation Mend, which provides medical care for wounded warriors. "The genesis for much of this research was to find ways to grow the most bone when we need it in the safest fashion," she explains. "At Operation Mend, we saw devastating injuries and fractures that needed localized bone to heal."
Dr. Ting, professor and chair of the section of orthodontics at the UCLA School of Dentistry, discovered NELL-1 in children with craniosynostosis. That is a condition in which the bones in the head fuse too early. He looked for the mechanism Mother Nature uses to grow those bones, and came upon NELL-1.
The protein has shown promise in many preclinical models. NELL-1 can be given locally, such as to treat a fracture or spinal fusion; or systemically by injection to treat overall bone loss such as osteoporosis.
UCLA researchers, including Dr. Ting and Dr. Soo, are now working with NASA to test whether NELL-1 can help prevent bone loss in astronauts. The study is ongoing with animal models at the International Space Station.
The development of future treatment for bone loss will be a stepped approach, but there's exciting research in the works.
By Patricia Chaney