There’s no doubt that exercise is good for us—strengthening our muscles, helping us maintain a healthy weight, maybe even boosting our moods and memories. There’s also been intriguing evidence that exercise may help build strong bones.
Now, an NIH-funded study is shedding light on the mechanism behind exercise’s bone-strengthening benefits . The new work—which may lead to new approaches for treating osteoporosis, a disease that increases the risk of bone fracture—centers on a hormone called irisin that is secreted by muscles during exercise.
In a series of mouse experiments, the researchers found that irisin works directly on a common type of bone cell, stimulating the cells to produce a protein that encourages bones to thin. However, this chain of molecular events ultimately takes a turn for the better and reverses bone loss.
Bruce Spiegelman’s lab at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard University Medical School, Boston, first discovered the irisin hormone in 2012 . In the years since, evidence has accumulated suggesting a connection between irisin and many of the benefits that come with regular workouts. For example, delivering low doses of irisin—sometimes called “the exercise hormone”—increase bone density and strength in mice.
But how does irisin act on bones? The answer hasn’t been at all clear. A major reason is the protein receptor on our cells that binds and responds to irisin wasn’t known.
In the new study reported in the journal Cell, Spiegelman’s team has now identified irisin’s protein receptor, called αVβ5 integrin. Those receptors are present on the surface of osteocytes, the most common cell type found in mature bone tissue.
The researchers went on to show that irisin helps osteocytes to live longer. It also leads the bone cells to begin secreting a protein called sclerostin, known for its role in preparing bones for remodeling and rebuilding by first breaking them down. Interestingly, previous studies also showed sclerostin levels increase in response to the mechanical stresses that come with exercise.
To further explore the role of irisin in mouse studies, the researchers gave the animals the hormone for six days. And indeed, after the treatment, the animals showed higher levels of sclerostin in their blood.
The findings suggest that irisin could form the basis of a new treatment for osteoporosis, a condition responsible for almost nine million fractures around the world each year. While it might seem strange that a treatment intended to strengthen bone would first encourage them to break down, this may be similar to the steps you have to follow when fixing up a house that has weakened timbers. And Spiegelman notes that there’s precedent for such a phenomenon in bone remodeling—treatment for osteoporosis, parathyroid hormone, also works by thinning bones before they are rebuilt.
That said, it’s not yet clear how best to target irisin for strengthening bone. In fact, locking in on the target could be a little complicated. The Speigelman lab found, for example, that mice prone to osteoporosis following the removal of their ovaries were paradoxically protected from weakening bones by the inability to produce irisin.
This new study fits right in with other promising NIH-funded efforts to explore the benefits of exercise. One that I’m particularly excited about is the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium (MoTrPAC), which aims to develop a comprehensive map of the molecular changes that arise with physical activity, leading to a range of benefits for body and mind.
Indeed, the therapeutic potential for irisin doesn’t end with bone. In healthy people, irisin circulates throughout the body. In addition to being produced in muscle, its protein precursor is produced in the heart and brain.
The hormone also has been shown to transform energy-storing white fat into calorie-burning brown fat. In the new study, Spiegelman’s team confirms that this effect on fat also depends on the very same integrin receptors present in bone. So, these new findings will no doubt accelerate additional study in Speigelman’s lab and others to explore the many other benefits of irisin—and of exercise—including its potential to improve our moods, memory, and metabolism.
 Irisin Mediates Effects on Bone and Fat via αV Integrin Receptors. Kim H, Wrann CD, Jedrychowski M, Vidoni S, Kitase Y, Nagano K, Zhou C, Chou J, Parkman VA, Novick SJ, Strutzenberg TS, Pascal BD, Le PT, Brooks DJ, Roche AM, Gerber KK, Mattheis L, Chen W, Tu H, Bouxsein ML, Griffin PR, Baron R, Rosen CJ, Bonewald LF, Spiegelman BM. Cell. 2018 Dec 13;175(7):1756-1768.
NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Credit: Chai Lab, University of Southern California, Los Angeles
Halloween is full of all kinds of “skulls”—from spooky costumes to ghoulish goodies. So, in keeping with the spirit of the season, I’d like to share this eerily informative video that takes you deep inside the real thing.
When cancers spread, or metastasize, from one part of the body to another, bone is a frequent and potentially devastating destination. Now, as you can see in this video, an NIH-funded research team has developed a new system that hopefully will provide us with a better understanding of what goes on when cancer cells invade bone.
In this 3D cross-section, you see the nuclei (green) and cytoplasm (red) of human prostate cancer cells growing inside a bioengineered construct of mouse bone (blue-green) that’s been placed in a mouse. The new system features an imaging window positioned next to the new bone, which enabled the researchers to produce the first series of direct, real-time micrographs of cancer cells eroding the interior of bone.
As Halloween approaches, lots of kids and kids-at-heart will be watching out for ghosts and goblins. So, to help meet the seasonal demand for scary visuals, I’d like to share this award-winning image that’s been packaged into a brief video.
The “ghoul” you see above is no fleeting apparition: it’s a mouse cell labelled to reveal its microtubules, which are dynamic filaments involved in cellular structure, transport, and motility. Graduate student Victor DeBarros captured this image a couple of years ago in the NIH-supported lab of Randall Duncan at the University of Delaware, Newark, as part of research on the rare skeletal disorder metatropic dysplasia (MD).
Caption: From stem cells to bone. Human bone cell progenitors, derived from stem cells, were injected under the skin of mice and formed mineralized structures containing cartilage (1-2) and bone (3). Credit: Loh KM and Chen A et al., 2016
To help people suffering from a wide array of injuries and degenerative diseases, scientists and bioengineers have long dreamed of creating new joints and organs using human stem cells. A major hurdle on the path to achieving this dream has been finding ways to steer stem cells into differentiating into all of the various types of cells needed to build these replacement parts in a fast, efficient manner.
Now, an NIH-funded team of researchers has reported important progress on this front. The researchers have identified for the first time the precise biochemical signals needed to spur human embryonic stem cells to produce 12 key types of cells, and to do so rapidly. With these biochemical “recipes” in hand, researchers say they should be able to generate pure populations of replacement cells in a matter of days, rather than the weeks or even months it currently takes. In fact, they have already demonstrated that their high-efficiency approach can be used to produce potentially therapeutic amounts of human bone, cartilage, and heart tissue within a very short time frame.