A new drug shows potential to help astronauts during future missions to the Moon and Mars

By | September 19, 2023

Worldwide, a person breaks a bone every three seconds due to a disease called osteoporosis, a common condition that weakens the bones of at least 10 million people in the United States alone.

And, with the concept of manned space missions to the Moon and Mars gaining momentum, scientists are actively looking for ways to protect astronauts from the inevitable consequences of long-term spaceflight, including sharp reductions in bone density.

While most drugs used to treat osteoporosis work by slowing the disease, a new approach aimed at the formation of new bone has shown promising results. Furthermore, these results were obtained on mice during an experiment conducted aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The researchers used a known protein produced by the body called NELL-like molecule-1 (NELL-1), which has previously been demonstrated promotion of bone formation in some animal models. Since the drug works by harnessing this protein only when injected into an affected bone during surgery, however, according to new research, researchers have modified the drug so that it can be injected under the skin to promote bone formation throughout the body.

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“If human studies confirm this, 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 injury or other disabling factors.” , said Dr. Kang Ting, professor. at the Forsyth Institute in Massachusetts and co-authored the new study, he said in a recent paper declaration published on September 18. Dr. Ting first discovered the effects of NELL-1 on bone formation more than 20 years ago.

The new study also improved the drug’s potential by extending its half-life, which determines how long a drug can persist in a body. In this case, the half-life almost tripled from 5.5 hours to 15.5 hours. The modified drug, called BP-NELL-PEG, “showed superior specificity for bone tissue without causing observable adverse effects,” the scientists said in the recent statement.

“We can say unequivocally that NELL-1 increases bone density in microgravity, which is very exciting,” said Chia Soo, professor in the Department of Surgery and Orthopedic Surgery at the University of California at Los Angeles and lead author of the new study. in a declaration on the drug in 2018. “This success demonstrates the robustness of the therapy to treat extreme bone loss.”

To test the drug’s effects on bone loss due to the spaceflight environment, researchers took 40 female mice to the ISS in 2017 and observed another 40 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida that had been treated with the drug but were not exposed to the conditions of space flight.

Both groups “showed a significant increase in bone formation,” the researchers said in the recent statement.

An image of the rodent habitat aboard the ISS, which looks like a glass room with a large blue box attached.  A second transparent box is attached to the large blue box.

An image of the rodent habitat aboard the ISS, which looks like a glass room with a large blue box attached. A second transparent box is attached to the large blue box.

The rodent habitat on board the ISS. (Image credit: NASA)

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According to the new study, among the 40 mice on the ISS, 20 were returned alive to Earth after 4.5 weeks, while the other half continued to be exposed to microgravity for nine weeks. This marks the first time live mice have been brought back to Earth, which was important for the team in conducting analyzes on live tissues and cells.

Although the drug has shown promising results in mice, however, there is still a long way to go before it can be used to promote bone formation in humans.

“We want to see how we can make it a better treatment for osteoporosis for eventual clinical application,” Soo said. “Not only for the millions of osteoporosis patients on Earth but also, thinking about future space travel and a mission to Mars, we want to see how we can prevent the damaging effects of microgravity on bones during spaceflight.”

The research is described in a paper published Monday (September 18) in npj Microgravity magazine.

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