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Osteoporosis researchers (from left) Anja Nohe, Jeremy Bonor and Hemanth Akkiraju examine samples of bone and cells, which will be analyzed to measure bone growth.
Anja Nohe calls osteoporosis “a
significant disease and a silent disease,” afflicting some 10 million
Americans and leading to more deaths — from osteoporosis-related
fractures — among women in the U.S. than breast and ovarian cancer
combined. The condition weakens the bones and becomes increasingly
common, especially in women, with age.
“A person often doesn’t think about osteoporosis until she has a
fracture — and a fracture doesn’t even have to come from a fall,” said
Nohe, assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Delaware. “Once you realize that you have it, it’s only somewhat treatable.”
Nohe and her research team are working with a specific peptide —
peptides are chains of two or more amino acids — that she developed. In
early tests the peptide appears promising for attacking osteoporosis on
two fronts, by reducing the loss of bone that occurs with the disease
and by simultaneously creating new bone.
The National Institutes of Health recently awarded Nohe a five-year, $1.65 million grant to support her work in conducting further research on the peptide.
Bone is a living tissue that, throughout a person’s life, is
continuously being renewed as old tissue is reabsorbed and replaced by
new tissue to the extent that, as Nohe said, “Every 10 years or so, you
get a new skeleton.” In osteoporosis, bone loss is accelerated, and less
of it is replaced.
“You have cells that eat up the bone and cells that build up new
bones,” Nohe said, explaining that current osteoporosis treatments
target only one or the other of those mechanisms and that they also can
have serious side effects. “We wondered: Can we develop something that
does both — something that activates the bone-forming cells and slows
down the bone-eating cells?”
The peptide, she said, seems to accomplish that goal, by inducing
bone formation while reducing the reabsorption of existing bone tissue.
In her NIH grant application, she noted that low bone-mineral density
leads to 1.5 million fractures a year, at a cost of about $19 billion
and with a dramatic effect on the patients’ quality of life. “New
treatments for osteoporosis are desperately needed,” she wrote.
Nohe and her research team are now using a mouse model as they seek
to better understand how the peptide works, with the hope that they can
eventually use that knowledge to move into clinical trials of the
At UD, her team includes doctoral student Hemanth Akkiraju and
research associate and lab manager Jeremy Bonor. She credited both of
them — as well as colleagues at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor,
University of Maine and Maine Medical Research Institute, where she
began working with the peptide — with providing invaluable help in her
research. Additionally, she said, the bone research group at UD helped
her expand her expertise in bone biology.
A chemist by training who later specialized in biophysics and cell
biology, Nohe said she relied on those colleagues as she developed her
knowledge of bone biology and her research techniques.
“I couldn’t have done this work without the right collaborators, and I’m so grateful to have found them,” she says.
UD’s bone group includes Nohe’s mentor and investigator on the grant,
Randall Duncan, professor and chairperson of biological sciences and
professor of mechanical engineering; Liyun Wang, associate professor of
mechanical engineering; Christopher Price, assistant professor of
biomedical engineering; and Robert Sikes, associate professor of
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