Dr. Clinton T. Rubin, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and Director for Center for Biotechnology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is reporting that mice placed on a platform that buzzes for 15 minutes a day, five days a week have 27 percent less fat than mice that did not stand on the platform. More importantly, the mice had correspondingly more bone.

All he did was put the mice on a platform that vibrated at such a low frequency that some people could not even feel it. “I was the biggest skeptic in the world,” Dr. Rubin said. “And I sit here and say, ‘This can’t possibly be happening.’ I feel like the credibility of my scientific career is sitting on a razor’s edge.”

Many researchers and scientists are enthusiastic, while many others are skeptical. The mice may be less fat after standing on the platform, these researchers say, but they are not convinced of the explanation — that fat precursor cells are turning into bone.

Even so, the National Institutes of Health is sufficiently intrigued to investigate the effect in a clinical trial in elderly people, said Joan A. McGowan, a division director at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Dr. McGowan notes that Dr. Rubin is a respected scientist and that her institute has helped pay for his research for the past 20 years, but she along with many other researchers caution against jumping to any conclusions.

“I’d call it provocative,” she said of the new result. “It says, ‘Keep looking here; this is exciting.’ But it is crucial that we don’t oversell this.” For now, she added, “it is a fundamental scientific finding.”

The story of the finding, which was published online and will appear in the Nov. 6 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, began in 1981 when Dr. Rubin and his colleagues started asking why bone is lost in aging and inactivity. “Bone is notorious for ‘use it or lose it,’” Dr. Rubin said. “Astronauts lose 2 percent of their bone a month. People lose 2 percent a decade after age 35. Then you look at the other side of the equation. Professional tennis players have 35 percent more bone in their playing arm.

At first, he assumed that the exercise effect came from a forceful impact of the exercise itslef on the body. However, Dr. Rubin considered other possibilities. Large signals can actually be counterproductive, he said, “If I scream at you over the phone, you don’t hear me better. If I shine a bright light in your eyes, you don’t see better.”

Over the years, he observed that bone responded to signals that were high in frequency but low in magnitude, more like a buzzing than a pounding. That makes sense, he went on, because muscles quiver when they contract, and that quivering is the predominant signal to bones. As people age, they lose many of those postural muscles, making them less able to balance, more apt to fall and, perhaps, prone to loss of bone.

“Bone is bombarded with little, teeny signals from muscle contractions,” Dr. Rubin said.
He discovered that in mice, sheep and turkeys, that standing on a flat vibrating plate promoted bone growth. He went on to conduct small studies in humans, children with cerebral palsy who could not move on their own and young women with low bone density. He concludes that the vibrations might also be effective in building bone in people!

Dr. Douglas P. Kiel, an osteoporosis researcher and director of medical research at the Institute for Aging Research at Harvard is now conducting a small, federally sponsored clinical trial. The trial will include 200 elderly people to see if spending time on the vibrating plate will help them build bone and lose fat.

The implications of this research for men on a hormone blockade are exciting. If the research holds up, then we might have a easy to use and drug free method of maintaining our bone health. Bone fractures and Metastasis to the bone are two of the most significant negative results of hormone blockade and advanced prostate cancer.

Although it is too early to “hang our hat on,” this research is well worth our monitoring.

Joel T Nowak MA, MSW