Josh Chou has been working at Harvard University and with NASA to test the effects of the absence of gravity’s pull on the body, much of which can only be understood by the principles of mechanomedicine
Mechanomedicine could change the way we diagnose cancer and treat it along with other ailments
Braces, acupuncture, massage – in one way or another, they all stimulate a mechanical response in our body. Now, new research suggests the same principle, applied at a cellular level, could be used to cure cancer, osteoporosis and other debilitating diseases.
Understanding the body’s mechanical response to stimuli is a concept that guides many of today’s health treatments. We use braces to apply constant pressure to our teeth to pull them into their proper place. We take advantage of fine needles applied to specific parts of the body to help relieve pain. And we enlist a massage therapist to manually knead our sore and tight muscles to enable them to relax and thereby reduce tension.
All these treatments are examples of mechanomedicine – the blending of engineering principles with biology.
Up until now, the practice of mechanomedicine has been limited to external applications, but advances in medical technology mean that’s changed.
Biomedical engineer in the School of Life Sciences Joshua Chou is one of a new breed of scientists applying mechanomedicine at the cellular level.
Chou says he’s fascinated by the idea of “our bodies being one big mechano-sensing machine”.
He explains: “There is no doubt that all cells within the body are mechano-sensitive, meaning they can sense and respond to their microenvironment. There’s also no doubt that modern technology has revolutionised the way we treat and understand complex diseases.
“My research in this area combines these two concepts to better understand how diseases in the body respond to mechanical stimuli and their local environment.”
According to Chou, mechanomedicine could very well change the way we diagnose cancer and treat it, too. He cites CRISPR-Cas9, the powerful (and at times controversial) gene editing tool that’s been crucial to the study of mechanomedicine.
So far, the revolutionary technology has been used to treat blindness, remove malaria from mosquitoes, and even enable pig-to-human transplants and in doing so, offer hope for the human organ transplant shortage.
“In order to understand how cells operate and sense mechanical signals, we have to look at specific biological markers that work to translate these signals into particular biological responses,” explains Chou. “This is where gene editing technology comes in. Tools such as CRISPR allow us to analyse certain cells to learn their function.
“In all uses of CRISPR technology, there is the underlying theme of ‘knocking out’ certain genes in order to understand how specific cells respond to mechanical stimuli.”
The insights and implications, says Chou, are vast.
“I’m hoping to change this way of thinking, and subsequently, how we deal with this painful and debilitating disease”
“For the last decade, pharmaceutical research has been dedicated to developing inhibitors or a 'miracle drug' to treat certain diseases. While this has brought success to some, it’s not an option for more complex diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.”
The latest research in this area is to learn how these cells sense their environment, which may lead to improved understanding and treatment. For example, how might a bone cell in zero gravity, in space, work differently to the same cell affected by gravity on Earth?
For the past two years, Chou has been working at Harvard University testing the effects of the absence of gravity’s pull on the body, much of which can only be understood by the principles of mechanomedicine.
“Typically, astronauts, when exposed to zero gravity environments like space, suffer from a multitude of problems, bone density being one of them.”
In one experiment, Chou and his team worked with a biotechnology company on the development of a sclerostin antibody – a molecule designed to increase bone density in zero gravity environments. The team injected a small group of mice with this antibody and sent them into space, to the International Space Station, for two weeks.
Osteoblasts (bone building cells)
The hypothesis of the experiment was that upon return, the bones of the mice injected with the antibody would be stronger than those which had not. When the mice returned to Earth, the results were promising.
“We found that the mice that received the sclerostin antibody had increased bone formation and improved bone structure, even increased bone strength!” enthuses Chou.
“This experiment was a breakthrough in two ways – it gave us an exciting insight into how we might be able to protect astronauts’ health in space, but also provided valuable insights for earthbound humans, too.”
Earlier this year, that antibody finished human clinical trials and it’s now awaiting FDA approval for use in the treatment of osteoporotic patients in the United States.
Chou, now back at UTS, is continuing his research into potential treatments for osteoporosis using the principles learned from the Harvard team’s microgravity experiments.
For Chou, the project is just as much personal as it is professional. “About 10 years ago, my mother was diagnosed with osteoporosis, around the time when I had just started my honours and was thinking about the next stage of my research.
“Through first-hand experience, I learned that osteoporosis is often referred to as the ‘silent disease’, currently accepted as part-and-parcel of growing old. If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis, it’s not seen as life-changing as someone who has suffered from a stroke. You are almost told to just ‘deal with it’.
“I’m hoping to change this way of thinking, and subsequently, how we deal with this painful and debilitating disease. I hope that, through my research, I can identify markers and thereby develop diagnostics to treat patients before it’s too late.
“I work with biologists, physicists, IT experts and engineers – it really is a cumulative team and process. In my opinion, mechanomedicine represents truly modern science.
“Together, we will radically change the face and pace of biological research.”