Could an injection of stem cells give new life to brittle bones?
Research led by an Ottawa scientist has accomplished that in mice, recipe leading to new hope that stem cells could eventually offer a brighter future for millions of people affected by age-related osteoporosis. The research, whose results were published this week in Stem Cells Translational Medicine, injected osteoporosis-prone mice with mesenchymal stem cells. Six months later, not only were their bones healthier, but they were essentially normal, with the “coral-like architecture” seen in healthy bones. The findings could eventually lead to treatment that would change lives if the findings are replicated in humans. There are 200 million people in the world with age-related osteoporosis, in which the inner structure of the bone diminishes, thins and loses its function. The disease makes people prone to fractures, especially fractures of the hip, which, for some, can be deadly. There is one existing treatment available and it can only be used for two years. William Stanford, senior author of the study conducted with researchers from The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Toronto, has a particular reason for optimism about the potential use of stem cells in treating osteoporosis. His brother suffers from a developmental disability that results in lack of bone density. About a year ago, his brother, 46, fell and broke his hip. He is now receiving treatment, but can only do so for two years. It’s possible that treatment might help him build enough bone mass to protect him in the future “but you never know,” said Stanford. For now, there are no other options. Stanford, who is a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and a professor at the University of Ottawa, said having a personal connection to the research is important. “I think it is always good when it is personal. It is a hard job and there are gruelling hours. When it is personal, it makes sense to work that hard.” Stem cells, which were discovered in the early 1960s by University of Toronto professors James Till and Earnest McCulloch, have shown promise for many potential treatments, including for multiple sclerosis and damaged hearts. Some of the work is going on in Ottawa labs. Ancillary trials (which join already approved trials) are underway with a research group in the U.S. where elderly patients have been injected with MSCs to study outcomes. “We will be able to look at those blood samples for biological markers of bone growth and bone reabsorption,” said Dr. Jeff Kiernan, first author of the study who is beginning a post-doctoral fellowship with The Ottawa Hospital’s Centre for Transfusion Research. Kiernan called the progress “very exciting.” If improvements are seen at the ancillary trials, larger clinical trials could begin within five years, said Stanford, which could lead to a new, promising treatment for osteoporosis. Stanford noted that the findings wouldn't have been possible without basic research, something under increasing financial pressure in Canada. “Basic research has been hit pretty hard in Canada,” he said. “This is why funding basic research is so important.”