Worldwide, a person fractures a bone every three seconds due to osteoporosis. A common condition that weakens the bones of at least 10 million people in the United States alone. With the space boom of the second decade of the 21st century, crewed space missions are planned for both the Moon and Mars. The entire scientific community is searching for ways to protect astronauts from the inevitable consequences of long-term space flight. A new drug shows great promise in countering bone density loss.

NELL-1 Protein

Most drugs used to treat osteoporosis work by slowing the disease. The new product aims to stimulate the formation of new bone and has shown excellent results, especially when tested on mice aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Researchers have used a long-known protein produced by the body called NELL-1, which previously demonstrated bone formation promotion in some animal models (ref.).

However, the drug only works when injected directly into the affected bone during surgery. To overcome this difficulty, researchers have modified the drug so that it can be administered under the skin to promote bone formation throughout the body. “If human studies confirm it, BP-NELL-PEG could be a promising tool to combat bone loss, especially when conventional resistance training is not feasible due to injuries or disabling factors” said Dr. Kang Ting, co-author of the study (ref.), in a recent statement (ref.).

Structural activity changes have given the new molecule an extended half-life. The experimental drug against bone density loss now has an almost tripled half-life, from 5.5 hours to 15.5 hours. “BP-NELL-PEG has shown superior specificity for bone tissue without causing observable adverse effects” scientists stated in the declaration.

BP-NELL-PEG Drug Tests

“We can unequivocally state that BP-NELL-PEG increases bone density in microgravity conditions, which is very exciting” said Chia Soo, lead author of the new study in a statement (ref.). “This success demonstrates the robustness of the therapy for treating extreme bone loss”.

To test the effects of BP-NELL-PEG on bone loss due to the space environment, researchers brought 40 female mice to the ISS in 2017. At the same time, they observed another 40 specimens at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida treated with the drug. Both groups “showed a significant increase in bone formation” researchers said. Of the 40 mice on the ISS, 20 were returned alive to Earth after 4.5 weeks. The other half continued to be exposed to microgravity for another nine weeks.

Although the drug has shown promising results in mice, there is still a long way to go before it can be used in humans and commercialized. “We want to see how to make it better for clinical osteoporosis applications” Soo said. “Not only for the millions of osteoporosis patients on Earth but also for future space travelers. We want to see how we can prevent the harmful effects of microgravity on bones during space flight”.

Stefano Gallotta
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