October 15, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 190—COVID-19-related bone loss, and new tools for colorectal cancer screening

As scientists and physicians continue to study the long-term effects of SARS-CoV-2—the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic—researchers at Indiana University’s School of Medicine and the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center have discovered that SARS-CoV-2 can cause quick and significant bone loss, even when infections are mild. The study is part of ongoing coronavirus research led by IU School of Medicine Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery Melissa Kacena, who is also vice chair for research and the first in the state of Indiana to use mouse models to spur discovery of a treatment for the disease. In the study, mouse models infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 lost approximately 25% of their bone mass within two weeks of contagion and exhibited a 63% increase in the cells that cause bone to break down. These changes were observed even in mice who experienced only mild COVID-19 symptoms and those who were asymptomatic. The study raises questions about the lasting implications of the pandemic and the virus’s effects on the musculoskeletal system. Decreased bone mass can cause brittle bones that are prone to breaks, especially in older people. Kacena’s team is studying if elderly people who overcome the virus will be even more likely to suffer broken bones. And with more children contracting the Delta variant, the team is considering whether COVID-19 could be impacting development in young people, too. The researchers expect this discovery of decreased bone mass in coronavirus-infected mice will lead to further research into the potential bone loss experienced by people of all ages who contract COVID-19.

In other news, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the world and was the second most common cancer death in 2020. Colonoscopies are a common way of screening for the disease, but for various reasons, especially expense and the need for patient preparation and anesthesia, many countries other than the United States, Germany, and Poland do not use routine screening colonoscopies. To address this issue, Dr. Thomas Imperiale, a professor of medicine at the IU School of Medicine and others have created new tools for predicting a person’s current risk of colorectal cancer and advanced precancerous polyps that can be very useful in countries where colonoscopies are not routinely used. The new tools are based on scoring various factors such as age, gender, smoking history, co-habitation history, aspirin use, and moderate physical activity over the past year. The tools weigh the importance of each factor to determine an individual's personalized risk. Such predictive, data-based tools are invaluable for determining who to recommend for a colonoscopy and who may be screened without colonoscopies, says Imperiale. By more precisely measuring the risk of individuals and populations, good scientifically based decisions about when and how to screen for colorectal cancer can be made by patients, clinicians and public health officials, Imperiale says.