More than three million people in the UK are estimated to have osteoporosis, which causes around 500,000 broken bones every year.
Funded by STFC, this new study will apply nanoscale vibration to patients with spinal injuries in an attempt to slow down and reverse the effects of a condition called ‘disuse osteoporosis’. This condition affects patients who have been paralysed, as the lack of use of the paralysed limbs results in insufficient stresses and strains on the bones, which weakens them and makes them more susceptible to fractures.
Loss of bone density can be extremely fast for people who have suffered severe sudden paralysis, so developing treatments to minimise fractures is vitally important. Although there are existing techniques to persuade stem cells to become bone, they involve complex and expensive engineering or chemicals.
The ‘nanokicking’ technique takes sophisticated measurement technology, based on the sophisticated laser interferometer systems designed in the UK for the recent Nobel Prize-winning gravitational wave detection, to turn stem cells into bone cells.
Professor Stuart Reid, of the University of Strathclyde, along with Matthew Dalby, professor of cell engineering at the University of Glasgow, first revealed their findings on ‘nanokicking’ in 2017, when they showed it was possible to use the technology developed to detect gravitational waves to grow human bone in a lab. This precise measurement technology first made for the gravitational wave detectors was created through funding from STFC.
Now, this study – the first clinical study using ‘nanokicking’ technology directly on patients – has received funding of almost £350,000 from STFC, who are part of UK Research and Innovation, an independent part of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). STFC funds UK research in areas including particle physics, nuclear physics, space science and astronomy.
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.
“The Government’s modern Industrial Strategy aims to harness medical innovations to help people have the most advanced treatment and meet the needs of our ageing society.”
The research team will apply the same type of vibration they have been applying to single cells in the laboratory to patient’s legs. Around 15 volunteer patients from the National Spinal Injuries Unit based at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow will be invited to take part in the project over the coming two years.
The project’s co-lead Dr Sylvie Coupaud, who has experience of rehabilitation interventions in patients with spinal cord injuries, said: “There is currently no effective approach to treating osteoporosis in these patients – it is diagnosed but not treated.
“Working closely with the spinal injuries unit, we have already developed robust methods to identify the onset of osteoporosis within weeks of injury, and we are now looking forward to producing effective interventions for patients, to slow the bone loss before a fracture occurs.”
The experiments could mean that the technology could be used to develop new therapies to help those who already suffer from the condition and also prevent those at risk from ever developing it.
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 technology could also eventually be used for astronauts on the International Space Station, who similarly lose bone density because of reduced gravity and the associated lack of loading on their bones.