Osteoporosis is a degenerative bone disease in which bones become fragile and more likely to break. The name, which literally means "porous bone," reflects the fact that osteoporosis is characterized by a decrease in normal bone density due to the loss of calcium and collagen. Over time, this loss of bone density causes bones to become brittle, and in turn, leads to frequent fractures and other serious health deficits.
Any bone can be affected, but of special concern are fractures of the hip and spine. A hip fracture almost always requires hospitalization and major surgery. It can impair a person's ability to walk unassisted and may cause prolonged or permanent disability or even death. Spinal or vertebral fractures also have serious consequences, including loss of height, severe back pain, and deformity.
Medical experts have determined that increased calcium intake, exercise and other healthy lifestyle habits can help prevent osteoporosis. For those who suffer from it, certain medications can help slow the disease. However, at this point, there is no cure.
Human and Social Costs
Osteoporosis is a major public health threat for an estimated 44 million Americans, or 55 percent of the people 50 years of age and older. And estimated 10 million Americans currently have osteoporosis and almost 34 million more are estimated to have low bone mass, placing them at increased risk for the disease.
Osteoporosis can affect women and men, but is most common among post-menopausal women. Of the 10 million Americans estimated to have osteoporosis, 80% are women. And, one in two women over age 50 will have an osteoporosis-related fracture in her lifetime.
In the U.S., the estimated direct costs (hospitals and nursing homes) for osteoporotic and associated fractures was $17 billion in 2001 ($47 million each day) and the cost is rising as our population ages.
The Potential for Stem Cell Cures and Therapies
Recent research at the University of Toronto indicates that a primary cause of osteoporosis may be the loss of healthy bone stem cells. The research suggests that the number of stem cells that normally give rise to new bone cells - called mesenchymal stem cells - declines with age, leading to fewer bone-forming cells. This means that the development of techniques to generate new bone stem cells in patients could alleviate or even cure osteoporosis.
In other recent research, British scientists successfully transformed unspecialized pluripotent stem cells into bone in mice. Researchers believe that these same principles could be applied to human pluripotent stem cells and may lead to major advancements in treating osteoporosis and bone injuries.
That's why groups concerned about this disease, such as the Alliance for Aging Research, the Congress of California Seniors and the Gray Panthers of California strongly support stem cell research - and have endorsed the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative.
PARTIAL LIST OF SOURCES:The National Osteoporosis Foundation
"Scientists create bone from stem cells." Imperial College, London.
"Scientists use stem cells to create bone in mice." CNN
"Molecular defect may lead to osteoporosis." University of Toronto
"Bone disease link to stem cells." BBC News.
Alliance for Aging Research
"Scientists are developing stem cell and gene therapies to repair fractures and treat bone loss." Genome News Network