Media Releases

Stem cell therapy reverses age-related osteoporosis in mice

March 17, 2016

Toron­to, ON — Imag­ine telling a patient suf­fer­ing from age-relat­ed (type-II) osteo­poro­sis that a sin­gle injec­tion of stem cells could restore their nor­mal bone struc­ture. This week, with a pub­li­ca­tion in STEM CELLS Trans­la­tion­al Med­i­cine, a group of researchers from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to and The Ottawa Hos­pi­tal sug­gest that this sce­nario may not be too far away.

Osteo­poro­sis affects over 200M peo­ple world­wide and, unlike post-menopausal (type‑I) osteo­poro­sis, both women and men are equal­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to devel­op­ing the age-relat­ed (type-II) form of this chron­ic dis­ease. With age-relat­ed osteo­poro­sis, the inner struc­ture of the bone dimin­ish­es, leav­ing the bone thin­ner, less dense, and los­ing its func­tion. The dis­ease is respon­si­ble for an esti­mat­ed 8.9 M frac­tures per year world­wide. Frac­tures of the hip—one of the most com­mon breaks for those suf­fer­ing from type-II osteoporosis—lead to a sig­nif­i­cant lack of mobil­i­ty and, for some, can be dead­ly.

But how can an injec­tion of stem cells reverse the rav­ages of age in the bones?

Pro­fes­sor William Stan­ford, senior author of the study, had in pre­vi­ous research demon­strat­ed a causal effect between mice that devel­oped age-relat­ed osteo­poro­sis and low or defec­tive mes­enchy­mal stem cells (MSCs) in these ani­mals.

“We rea­soned that if defec­tive MSCs are respon­si­ble for osteo­poro­sis, trans­plan­ta­tion of healthy MSCs should be able to pre­vent or treat osteo­poro­sis,” said Stan­ford, who is a Senior Sci­en­tist at The Ottawa Hos­pi­tal and Pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ottawa.

To test that the­o­ry, the researchers inject­ed osteo­porot­ic mice with MSCs from healthy mice. Stem cells are “prog­en­i­tor” cells, capa­ble of divid­ing and chang­ing into all the dif­fer­ent cell types in the body. Able to become bone cells, MSCs have a sec­ond unique fea­ture, ide­al for the devel­op­ment of human ther­a­pies: these stem cells can be trans­plant­ed from one per­son to anoth­er with­out the need for match­ing (need­ed for blood trans­fu­sions, for instance) and with­out being reject­ed.

After six months post-injec­tion, a quar­ter of the life span of these ani­mals, the osteo­porot­ic bone had aston­ish­ing­ly giv­en way to healthy, func­tion­al bone.

“We had hoped for a gen­er­al increase in bone health,” said John E. Davies, Pro­fes­sor at the Fac­ul­ty of Den­tistry and the Insti­tute of Bio­ma­te­ri­als & Bio­med­ical Engi­neer­ing (IBBME) at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, and a co-author of the study. “But the huge sur­prise was to find that the exquis­ite inner “coral-like” archi­tec­ture of the bone struc­ture of the inject­ed animals—which is severe­ly com­pro­mised in osteoporosis—was restored to nor­mal.”

The study could soon give rise to a whole new par­a­digm for treat­ing or even indef­i­nite­ly post­pon­ing the onset of osteo­poro­sis. Cur­rent­ly there is only one com­mer­cial­ly avail­able ther­a­py for type-II osteo­poro­sis, a drug that main­tains its effec­tive­ness for just two years.

And, while there are no human stem cell tri­als look­ing at a sys­temic treat­ment for osteo­poro­sis, the long-range results of the study point to the pos­si­bil­i­ty that as lit­tle as one dose of stem cells might offer long-term relief.

“It’s very excit­ing,” said Dr. Jeff Kier­nan, first author of the study. A grad­u­ate from IBBME who is begin­ning a Post­doc­tor­al Fel­low­ship at The Ottawa Hos­pi­tal with the Cen­tre for Trans­fu­sion Research, Kier­nan pur­sued the research for his doc­tor­al degree.

“We’re cur­rent­ly con­duct­ing ancil­lary tri­als with a research group in the U.S., where elder­ly patients have been inject­ed with MSCs to study var­i­ous out­comes. We’ll be able to look at those blood sam­ples for bio­log­i­cal mark­ers of bone growth and bone reab­sorp­tion,” he added.

If improve­ments to bone health are observed in these ancil­lary tri­als, accord­ing to Stan­ford, larg­er ded­i­cat­ed tri­als could fol­low with­in the next 5 years.

Stem cells were first dis­cov­ered in the ear­ly 1960s by Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Pro­fes­sors James E. Till and Earnest McCul­loch. UofT con­tin­ues to be a world leader in stem cell research.

Full ref­er­ence: Sys­temic Mes­enchy­mal Stro­mal Cell Trans­plan­ta­tion Pre­vents Func­tion­al Bone Loss in a Mouse Mod­el of Age-Relat­ed Osteo­poro­sis. Jef­frey Kier­nan, Sal­ly Hu, Marc D. Gryn­pas, John E. Davies, William L. Stan­ford. Stem Cells Trans­la­tion­al Med­i­cine. 2016;5:1–11

Fun­ders: Cana­di­an Insti­tutes of Health Research, Nat­ur­al Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Research Coun­cil of Cana­da, Cana­da Research Chair

About the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to: The Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to has assem­bled one of the strongest research and teach­ing fac­ul­ties in North Amer­i­ca, pre­sent­ing top stu­dents at all lev­els with an intel­lec­tu­al envi­ron­ment unmatched in breadth and depth on any oth­er Cana­di­an cam­pus.

U of T fac­ul­ty co-author more research arti­cles than their col­leagues at any uni­ver­si­ty in the US or Cana­da oth­er than Har­vard. As a mea­sure of impact, U of T con­sis­tent­ly ranks along­side the top five U.S. uni­ver­si­ties whose dis­cov­er­ies are most often cit­ed by oth­er researchers around the world.  The U of T fac­ul­ty are also wide­ly rec­og­nized for their teach­ing strengths and com­mit­ment to grad­u­ate super­vi­sion.

Estab­lished in 1827, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to today oper­ates in down­town Toron­to, Mis­sis­sauga and Scar­bor­ough, as well as in nine renowned aca­d­e­m­ic hos­pi­tals.

About The Ottawa Hos­pi­tal: The Ottawa Hos­pi­tal is one of Canada’s largest learn­ing and research hos­pi­tals with over 1,100 beds, approx­i­mate­ly 12,000 staff and an annu­al bud­get of over $1.2 bil­lion. Our focus on research and learn­ing helps us devel­op new and inno­v­a­tive ways to treat patients and improve care. As a mul­ti-cam­pus hos­pi­tal, affil­i­at­ed with the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ottawa, we deliv­er spe­cial­ized care to the East­ern Ontario region, but our tech­niques and research dis­cov­er­ies are adopt­ed around the world. We engage the com­mu­ni­ty at all lev­els to sup­port our vision for bet­ter patient care.


Media Con­tacts:

Erin Vol­lick, Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Offi­cer, Fac­ul­ty of Den­tistry, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to | (416) 979‑4900 ext. 4381| (416) 409‑4633 (cell)

Jen­nifer Gan­ton, Direc­tor, Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Pub­lic Rela­tions, Ottawa Hos­pi­tal Research Insti­tute |613–798-5555 ext. 73325 |613–614-5253 (cell)