A great deal of biochemistry is going on out there in the world: odds are you'll learn something useful in relation to aging or age-related diseases - such as cancer - if you just know where and how to look. To pick one good example, a researcher has been investigating bear biochemistry for the past few years. This seems likely to provide some insight into methods to prevent osteoporosis - age-related deterioration of bone strength and density - in other mammals, such as we humans. A recent article at ScienCentral provides an update on progress since I last noted this research in 2004:
Most of today's drugs for this disease aim to prevent bone loss. But Donohue argues that it may be more effective to increase bone formation.
That's what hibernating black bears do. Donohue discovered this by analyzing the bending and breaking strength of a collection of black bear bones that was given to him by hunters. He found that while they do lose bone during hibernation, black bears grow new bone cells at an equal or faster rate. "And in fact their bending strength increases as a function of age, despite these annual periods of immobilization," Donohue says.
levels of a hormone known to promote bone growth, called parathyroid hormone or PTH, actually increase during hibernation. He points to one study in people that found that a synthetic version of PTH increased bone mineral density in postmenopausal women.
Donohue says that since the black bear version of the PTH gene is different from humans, understanding how it works could lead to better ways to treat or prevent osteoporosis in people. "We could develop those hormones or other growth factors synthetically, and then this could be used for drug treatments for osteoporosis in humans," he says.
Donahue has synthesized the hormone in his lab and his next step is to sprinkle it on bone cells and watch for bone-forming activity.
As the tools of biotechnology advance in capability and fall dramatically in cost, data mining the living world for existing solutions - or pointers to new solutions - to age-related medical conditions is ever more of an attractive proposition. In addition to those higher animals that avoid osteoporosis, others can regrow limbs, regrow damaged organs, or live healthily for centuries. In the grand scheme of things - a scheme that includes some truly strange and very different living creatures - the biochemistries of these overperformers aren't all that different from ours. Effective medical technologies will be built on this knowledge one day, and the cost-effectiveness equation for this research and development continues to tilt in our favor with each passing year of technological progress.