Scientists discover an essential mechanism for maintaining bone density

  • The research group on Cell Signaling and Bone Biology at IDIBELL and the UB has revealed the importance of the function of NRF2, a protein that regulates the expression of some genes in response to oxidative radicals, in the maintenance of bone tissue.
  • In the same research they have also observed how an already marketed NRF2-activating drug could be beneficial for osteopenic diseases.
fotogrup nrf2

Apart from materials such as calcium, phosphorus or collagen, bones also contain three types of cells: osteoblasts, osteoclasts and osteocytes. We now know that osteocytes act as orchestra conductors, communicating with osteoblasts and osteoclasts to coordinate the bone remodeling needed to adapt to the body’s physiological requirements. Osteoblasts build bone tissue and osteoclasts reabsorb and remodel it. In order for the integrity of the bones to be maintained, there must be a balance between the activity of the three cell types.

In osteopenic diseases, an imbalance in the activity of these three cells leads to the loss of bone mass. These diseases have various causes, related to age, hormonal status, genetics or nutritional status, among others, and no definitive cure has yet been found to help recover the lost bone mass.


The role of NRF2

Until now, NRF2, a protein that regulates gene expression in response to oxygen radicals, had also been shown to be of some importance in bone maintenance, but its mechanism of action had not been elucidated. A study carried out by the research group on Cell Signaling and Bone Biology at IDIBELL and the UB has unraveled the role of NRF2 in bones. This protein stimulates the generation and activity of osteocytes, which promotes the maintenance and integrity of bones. In fact, mice lacking NRF2 have been shown to have lower bone density.

As part of this research, scientists have administered dimethyl fumarate, a drug currently being used as a treatment for multiple sclerosis, to mice with osteoporosis. They found that these mice maintained better bone mass compared to those that did not receive dimethyl fumarate.

“This shows how a certain level of oxygen free radicals can be beneficial in maintaining the integrity of the skeleton – says Francesc Ventura, coordinator of this work – and opens a new therapeutic opportunity for the design of new drugs with protective action of bone density and structure ”.



The Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) is a biomedical research center created in 2004. It is participated by the Bellvitge University Hospital and the Viladecans Hospital of the Catalan Institute of Health, the Catalan Institute of Oncology, the University of Barcelona and the City Council of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat.

IDIBELL is a member of the Campus of International Excellence of the University of Barcelona HUBc and is part of the CERCA institution of the Generalitat de Catalunya. In 2009 it became one of the first five Spanish research centers accredited as a health research institute by the Carlos III Health Institute. In addition, it is part of the “HR Excellence in Research” program of the European Union and is a member of EATRIS and REGIC. Since 2018, IDIBELL has been an Accredited Center of the AECC Scientific Foundation (FCAECC).

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