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Possible breakthrough in osteoporosis research

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Sugar chains on the surface of stem cells could help restore bone strength, according to a study published in the Journal of Cell Science.

Scientists at the University of York found that altering the structure of these sugar chains could help promote bone growth.

More than three million people in the UK are affected by osteoporosis, a condition that causes bone to become fragile and susceptible to fracture and breakage. The new discovery could have important implications for future treatments.

In the study, a researcher in bone formation and a researcher in cell sugars combined their expertise to examine whether these sugars might have a role to play in forming bone. They treated cells with a commonly used laboratory chemical that alters sugar chains, called kifunensine, to see what it might do to bone-forming stem cells.

Dr Daniel Ungar, from the University of York’s Department of Biology, said: “The complexity of these sugars means that they have never been tested in this way before, but we found that after a couple of days, interrupting the sugars’ normal function enabled them to enhance bone formation processes in stem cells.”

This is the first time that these sugar chains have been connected to bone growth and could pave the way for new investigations into possible future treatments for osteoporosis, where bone strength is a particular issue, the university explained.

Professor Paul Genever, also from the Department of Biology, added: “Currently the most commonly used drugs for treating osteoporosis aim to prevent further bone loss to halt progression of the disease, but we have no reliable candidates for actually restoring bone strength.

“This is an exciting step forward into understanding the role of these sugars in its relationship to bone growth, but we still have some way to go in realising just how this mechanism works and what would happen to the cells when treated inside the body.”

Next, the team will investigate whether the chemical treatment can be targeted to stem cells involved with bone growth to ensure that it has no adverse reactions on other cells in the body.