Some of the most amazing discoveries in medicine occur when researchers notice that a drug meant to treat one thing can treat something else. One of the best-known examples is aspirin. While it is a commonly used painkiller, doctors discovered it also helps prevent heart attacks.
In a promising new case of medical serendipity, a drug approved for the treatment of osteoporosis has been found to jumpstart the healing process in elderly patients with broken bones.
"So if an old person breaks their bone, many times they cannot mount the stem cell stimulus and then eventually allow that bone to unite and knit itself back to normal. We've been able to show that this drug rapidly stimulates fracture healing," says Dr. Edward Puzas, head of bone research at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
He says the drug teriparatide normally helps build up and strengthen the bones of osteoporosis patients. But researchers began to notice that when it was given to patients who had bone fractures, the fractures began to close. Puzas says the drug appears to heal bone by stimulating the body's naturally occurring stem cells.
"It works likely through recruiting stem cells, stem cells in the body - and we're not talking about embryonic stem cells, the controversial stem cells that everybody is worried about - we're talking about adult stem cells," he says. "And these are cells that have the potential to differentiate into a few specific tissues, one of which is bone."
Teriparatide has been shown to speed the healing of bone in mice, and the National Institutes of Health in Washington is now funding a controlled human study. Final results are not expected until the end of the year, but Puzas says some of the subjects have shown remarkable improvement already in bone healing and levels of pain.
"It is pretty amazing, actually, the results that we've seen. And if it turns out that those [who showed improvement] are the patients that were on the drug, I think we're going to find something here."
It could be a life-saving find - one-fourth of all older women who suffer pelvic fractures have fatal complications.