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Is Zebrafish the Key to Beating Osteoporosis?

As your body ages, your bones become less dense and more prone to fractures, breaks, and osteoporosis. What if the key to treating osteoporosis and degeneration in other parts of your body rested with one tiny fish?

Regeneration Medicine

The Zebrafish, whose name is derived from its zebra-like markings, is known as the “regeneration master” throughout nature. It has the remarkable ability to regenerate bones and internal organs, including the heart and liver… something that humans would love to be able to do.

According to Dr. Michael Smith, there’s an entire field of study called regeneration medicine that aims to help the body restore its own organs and bones. Hypothetically, a damaged heart muscle, liver or kidney could be regenerated and replaced within the body without worrying about rejection.

Researchers from the National University in Singapore note that humans have around 90 percent of the same genes as Zebrafish. Their goal is to identify which genes are used to activate the regeneration mechanism, and “turn on” those genes in humans. This could be an effective solution or treatment for osteoporosis, which causes the bones to become porous, brittle, and easily broken.

The Impact of Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a significant disease, especially in post-menopausal women. Even though many women may place breast cancer or ovarian cancer at the top of their “most-feared” list, osteoporosis should also be thought of prominently. Fracturing a bone due to osteoporosis may increase the rate of mortality, especially if it’s a large bone, like your femur.

What can you do if you already have osteoporosis? Currently there is only one FDA-approved drug that focuses on the bone-forming cells. Studies are also showing promising research behind a combination of vitamin D and a trace mineral known as strontium. Even though an osteoporosis drug using strontium is prescribed in European countries and Australia, it’s currently only available as a nutritional supplement in the United States.

In the accompanying audio segment, Dr. Mike shares compelling research that could bring a new hope for osteoporosis sufferers.

RadioMD Presents:Healthy Talk | Original Air Date: March 25, 2015
Host: Michael Smith, MD

Anti-aging and disease prevention radio is right here on RadioMD. Here's author, blogger, lecturer and national medical personality, Dr. Michael Smith, MD, with Healthy Talk:

DR. MIKE: Is the zebra fish the key to beating osteoporosis? Zebra fish? Do you know what a zebra fish is? I Googled it. That's how I know what it is. Thank God for Google, right? I just went right to the images. It's striped, right? So, I guess that's where the zebra part comes in. But, it's definitely a fish—a small little fish. Some of them are black and white stripes. There's the zebra connection. Some of them, there's a cool looking one with what looks like blue and gold looking stripes. Why am I talking about this fish that's striped like a zebra?

It turns out that this fish is the regeneration master throughout nature. What do I mean by that? It turns out that this fish is pretty awesome. It's able to regenerate bones and its internal organs like its heart and liver. That is something we would love to be able to do as humans, right? As a matter of fact, there's a whole field of study called "regeneration medicine" looking at how can we help the body regenerate its own organs so that if there's a damaged heart muscle or damaged liver, kidney, what have you, you regenerate your own either right in your own body or in a petri dish and then we put it back in you.

I mean, you don't have to worry about rejection. It's a pretty powerful form of medicine so a lot of researchers are looking at this little guy—this little fish--because it apparently has figured out how to do it. It's just a little fish. Pretty smart, huh? As a matter of fact, this fish is being studied at the National University of Singapore and they're really interested in the genes involved in regenerating, specifically the fins, and the bones the make up the fin.

So, some of the researchers at the National University of Singapore made mention that we have about 90% of the same exact genes as this fish. So, wouldn't it be cool if we could figure out which genes the fish is using to regenerate bone and then find those genes or the similar genes—the cousin genes to the fish's genetic makeup—find those in humans, in us, and then turn them on so that we can make bone? I mean, that would be really awesome. Because, remember, what is osteoporosis? Osteoporosis is porous bone. It's low bone density and instead of being a nice, flexible, strong structure, it's almost like Swiss cheese. The bone becomes brittle and it's going to break. There are two types of cells that are involved in making bone and breaking bone. The cells that make bone are called "osteoblasts" and the cells that destroy bone are called "osteoclasts".

As you're growing and making bone, you tend to be balanced towards the osteoblasts because you're making lots of bone, but as we get older, we tend to be balanced towards the osteoclasts, the bone destruction cell. So, the researchers are wondering, is there a way, maybe, that we can rebalance the body by turning on and turning off certain genes involved in bone formation—in making osteoblasts? I think that's an awesome and interesting question.

You know, it's funny because the FDA has approved certain drugs for osteoporosis but most of those drugs have to do with the osteoclasts—inhibiting the cells that destroy bone. As far as I know, there's only one FDA approved drug that focuses on the bone forming cells—the osteoblasts. So, this type of genetic research could really open up the door for more of the bone forming medicines--bone forming nutrients--and I think that that is a great research path to go down in figuring out how to help people with osteoporosis. It's a significant disease. especially in post-menopausal women. If you were to take a bunch of women and just ask them to list out the diseases that scare them the most, osteoporosis may not even make the list. They're going to talk about breast cancer, other types of cancers, heart disease, all that. I'm not saying that's wrong.

All I'm saying, though, is osteoporosis should be right up there along with everything else that they list because as a woman gets older, especially if you get in your 60's, 70's, if you fracture a bone because you have osteoporosis, there's a high mortality rate, greater than 50% chance of dying after you break a bone—a big bone like a femur or a hip—because of osteoporosis. So, it's a significant disease with a significant morbidity and mortality associated with it. So, this is an important line of research.

So, here you have a zebra fish that has a genetic makeup very similar to humans. It's able to regenerate all kinds of organs like bones. So, you've got researchers like here at the National University of Singapore looking at what those genes are, finding the equivalent in humans and trying to find ways to manipulate those genes so we can turn on bone formation—we can activate the osteoblasts. I think that's an awesome line of research and we'll kind of have to see where this goes in the future.

But, what can you do today if you have osteoporosis? What is something you can do right now? Hopefully, you're on a good bone formula. You might even be on the FDA approved drugs that knock out the bone-destroying cells. Those are called bisphosphonates. Those are the most commonly prescribed drugs for osteoporosis. What else can you be doing? I want to mention a study that came up recently using strontium and a vitamin D metabolite. Now, strontium has been around for a long time. Strontium has a lot of good research behind it and it's bone-forming, bone-protection type properties.

It fell out of favor in the 1950's because there's also a form of strontium—this is not the form we use in supplementation—but there's a form of strontium that's associated with nuclear fallout and when they were doing nuclear bomb testing in the 50's, people were talking about strontium was now in the environment. It scared people. They thought it was the same strontium used in supplements, so people stopped buying it and the strontium market just kind of fell apart. We need to bring it back because strontium is really good for your bones. What's interesting now is that they're combining strontium with vitamin D metabolites. We know vitamin D is good for the bones, right? Vitamin D helps to manage calcium along with vitamin K2.

But, it turns out vitamin D is heavily metabolized and once you ingest vitamin D or your body makes basic vitamin D, vitamin D3 is what it's known as, it's metabolized in many different ways forming all these different metabolites. Now, there's research looking at what are these vitamin D metabolites really doing in the body when it comes to bone health?

So, they did this study. They took strontium with one of these vitamin D metabolites and they looked at how it might help—the combination of the two-- might help in treating osteoporosis. As a matter of fact, the aim of this study—this was published in Drugs, Research and Development, 2014—the aim of the study was to compare the efficacy in strontium in combination with alfacalcidol which is a vitamin D metabolite, and strontium by itself or placebo. So, you have three arms in this study. You've got a placebo group, a strontium group and a strontium plus a vitamin D metabolite group.

Bottom line is, in these 48 women, they were split up evenly in these groups. The strontium and vitamin D metabolite group significantly improved on all bone density parameters, the radiographic studies and certain blood tests. There are certain proteins we can look at to see how your bones are reforming. All of these parameters improved significantly in the strontium and the vitamin D metabolite group. That's something you can do right now.
In the future, maybe we'll manipulate your genes like the zebra fish.

But, take care of your bones. It's very, very important. This is Healthy Talk on RadioMD. I'm Dr. Mike. Stay well.

Alonso is a long-time health and wellness advocate who loves to write about it. His writing spans the scope of blogs, educational magazines, and books, both on and offline.