Science

Scientists get stem cells shaking to generate new bone

‘Nanokicking' technique that could reverse osteoporosis is to be tested on 15 spinal injury patients in Scotland.

A revolutionary method of kick-starting bone growth with tiny vibrations is to be tested on 15 British patients.

Scientists hope the pilot trial in Scotland will eventually help millions of people affected by the brittle bone disease osteoporosis.

Laboratory experiments have already shown that new bone can be generated by creating very small, precise, vibrations in adult stem cells.

Now researchers want to apply the same “nanokicking” technique to the 15 spinal injury trial patients, using  transducer devices attached to their legs.

The idea is to shake up stem cells within bone marrow that ought to be transforming into bone but have chosen a wrong pathway,  becoming fat instead.

Osteoporosis, which affects more than three million people in the UK, is linked to this process, nicknamed “fat of the bone”.

The condition causes around 500,000 broken bones each year in the UK, and is a special hazard for paralysed patients with weakened bones caused by lack of muscle use.

The 15 volunteers are all being treated at the National Spinal Injuries Unit based at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow.

Professor Stuart Reid, from the University of Strathclyde, who helped develop the technology, said: “These precise nanoscale vibrations have been shown to control the behaviour of adult stem cells which can then be used to start the growth of bone in the laboratory from a patient’s own cells.

“The lab-based experiments on stem cells have been remarkably repeatable across several labs in the UK and the trial will investigate whether it will work in patients.”

The technology could lead to radical new ways of treating osteoporosis as well as preventing the disease in people at risk, said the researchers.

Professor Reid added: “If we get positive results then there will be an immediate scale up of the project and we will see how we can roll this out for the benefit of the wider population and not just those with spinal injuries.”

The team is also keeping the UK Space Agency informed about its progress.

Astronauts who spend lengthy periods of time in space are highly vulnerable to osteoporosis due to the loss of gravity.

In future, nanokicking treatment could be used to protect the bones of crews working on the International Space Station or undertaking long voyages to Mars and other destinations, say the researchers.

The two-year project has received funding of almost £350,000 from the Science sand Technology Facilities Council (STFC) .

Science minister Chris Skidmore said: “Osteoporosis can be a devastating condition for the three million people that suffer from it across the UK. This research shows enormous promise of slowing down and even reversing the disease.”

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