What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This phrase is often helpful when fighting adversity, but it does not hold true for patients suffering from diseases such as leukemia, tuberculosis, and certain forms of anemia. Current medical science allows us to save lives, but their quality of life is curtailed because bones are typically weaker and prone to breaking as a result of cancer treatments. Patients may have endured countless surgeries, drug rehabilitation, and physical therapy only to have their level of physical activity severely limited because of the complications posed from fragile bones.
Goldner’s trichrome staining, in which mineralized bone matrix, erythrocytes, and cytoplasm were stained green, orange, and red, respectively. Credit: Burr, David B., and Matthew R. Allen, eds. Basic and applied bone biology. Academic Press, 2013.
At the center of this problem is bone marrow, and working to find a solution is Richard Deyhle, a Masters student studying Radiation Health Physics, believes we may have found a way to treat these cancers while also increasing our bone strength to previous levels of functionality. This work is in the proof-of-concept phase so it’s still early in the framework of medical application to the public but there is little doubt this can provide miraculous benefits to cancer patients providing them a higher quality of life.
Richard working on generating a 3D visualization of Micro-Computed Tomography data.
First it’s important to understand that even though bone marrow only accounts for ~4% of our body mass, it’s also the production source of red blood cells (carrying oxygen throughout our body), blood platelets (helping to clot blood to prevent blood loss), and white blood cells (major players in our immune system keeping us healthy). Cancer treatments focus on treating and restoring the healthy function of bone marrow so we can live. Kind of important stuff! But the health of the bone marrow does not always correspond to strong bones. This is where Richard, working under Urszula Iwaniec & Russell Turner in the Skeletal Biology Lab at OSU, brings their expertise to find new ways to treat malfunctioning bone marrow.
Micro-Computed Tomography image of the radius bone from a rat from Space Shuttle Mission, STS-41.
Bone marrow is made of many subcomponents, and standard medical practice is to replace a patient’s bone marrow (containing all subcomponents) with bone marrow from a compatible donor. Depending on the extent of transplant, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000,000 cells that are replaced representing the mosaic of cells that make up bone marrow. Richard is using a more targeted approach of purifying bone marrow and isolating a subcomponent, called Hematopoietic stem cells, so a transplant will only need a few thousand of these special cells to perform the same function as the much larger transplant. Using mice models his lab has found similar results as other researchers showing the use of pure Hematopoietic stem cells, instead of bulk bone marrow material, has similar effects on bone marrow functionality. Through the use of Green Fluorescent Protein (as a bookmark in the newly injected cells allowing researchers to trace where cells move through the body), the Skeletal Biology Lab hopes to better understand the mechanism of bone strength resilience to a healthy functioning bone marrow. Like any good scientific study, much more work needs to be done to examine these results and verify effect sizes, but the road ahead looks promising.
Richard’s childhood home was nestled away from large cities that allowed him to stare at the sky and see the Milky Way in all its beauty. Even at a young age he wondered about space, wondered how far humans can go, and wondered how he can help keep future explorers safe as we explore distant worlds. These youthful curiosities of space eventually lead to his research passion of understanding how radiation affects the human body. If all his plans work out he hopes to transition into a PhD program where he can focus more closely on making sure our fragile human bodies can explore worlds beyond ours.
If you’re interested in new medical advancements that can be used to treat cancer or astronauts, you cannot miss this episode! Be sure to tune in Sunday May 7th at 7PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM or by listening live.