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Astronaut John Glenn Helped Explore New Frontiers in Osteoporosis Research

May 30, 2017
One of my favorite stories about medical research involves the late American hero, John Glenn, flying at zero gravity.

I was a relatively new Congressman the first time I met Glenn at an Aspen Institute retreat focused on U.S.-Russia relations. The Ohioan was nearing the end of a distinguished 25-year U.S. Senate career, and I admit I was a little star struck. As an 11-year old boy I had watched in amazement as Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. He circled the globe three times at speeds exceeding 17,000 miles per hour before his splashdown and recovery in the Atlantic Ocean.

Glenn was a Marine Corps fighter pilot who helped defeat the Nazis in World War II and flew sorties in the Korean War before becoming a NASA astronaut. While Glenn is best known for his first orbital flight, his contribution to medical research came 36 years later when he volunteered to become the oldest space traveler in history.

One of the goals of the Discovery mission was to study the effects of aging on bone loss in outer space. On longer space flights, astronauts lose on average 2.5 percent of their bone density a month. On Earth, a person who loses 30 percent of bone mass over a lifetime is diagnosed with osteoporosis.

On the Discovery shuttle, researchers compared Glenn’s deep-space bone loss to that of his younger crew mate. Even at age 77, Glenn was willing to subject himself to the accelerated aging of spaceflight for the greater good of scientific understanding. The realization that a microgravity environment causes bone deterioration 10 times faster in space than on Earth was a significant finding. Scientists concluded that slower regeneration is caused by cellular changes that lead to bone loss and that the Earth's gravitational force may have a direct effect on those cells.

May is Osteoporosis Awareness Month. In the two decades since the Discovery mission, biotech researchers have made strides in their understanding and treatment of the disease here on Earth.

Osteoporosis is often called the silent disease because you can’t feel your bones becoming weaker, and you may not even know you have the condition until a bone breaks. Peak bone mass is built early in life. Failure to build strong bones during childhood, adolescence and young adulthood can lead to devastating fractures in older Americans, as well as years of pain, disability and early death.

One of the key clinical risk factors is family history, so early detection, increased calcium and Vitamin D uptake, and biopharmaceutical treatment for those with a genetic predisposition can increase the chance of better outcomes later in life.

An estimated 54 million U.S. adults are at risk for osteoporosis and low bone mass, and 80 percent of Americans with the disease are women, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. More than half the U.S. adult population over age 50 is at risk of breaking a bone as a result of low bone mass. Annual health care costs related to the disease are more than $15 billion.

For men and women with an increased risk of fractures, the most widely prescribed osteoporosis medication are bisphosphonates. These compounds reduce fracture risk by 20 to 30 percent. Hormone-like medications approved for treating osteoporosis also are common treatments for at-risk women. According to the Mayo Clinic, the medication Prolia was made available in 2010 as a novel antiresorptive treatment that can reduce risk of fractures in men and women who may not be able to take bisphosphonates. It is also the first and only medicine for women past 50 years of age that is given as a shot two times a year in the doctor’s office.

Forteo is the most common medication prescribed for men and women past 50 years of age who have low bone density, a history of fractures, or osteoporosis caused by steroid medicines. Doctors say it has the potential to rebuild bones, slowing or reversing osteoporosis progression.

Other therapies currently in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pipeline hold potential for further progress. Radius’ abaloparatide injection was approved by the FDA for the treatment of postmenopausal women with osteoporosis at high risk for fracture. It’s also a bone-builder. Additionally, Amgen is working on a biologic administered monthly that would lower the risk of vertebral fractures in older women.

All of us in the biotechnology community are excited by the research frontiers being explored by our world-leading scientists working on osteoporosis treatments, and we are grateful to John Glenn for blazing one final trail in outer space to support their work.

In his final years, Glenn was a spokesman for osteoporosis awareness and prevention before passing away last December at the age of 95. As his spirit lifted into the heavens, his body was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. His legacy lives on in our hearts and in our work.