The Story Behind Bone Health Technology

The Story Behind Bone Health Technology

In 2014 Dr. Shane Mangrum was reading a medical journal, staying up to speed on the latest medical advances, when he came across an article regarding vibration technology. Developed by NASA for astronauts, vibration platforms were created to prevent bone loss as a result of being in space. As a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor who saw patients at risk of osteoporosis and spine fractures every week, the article caught his interest. For years Shane had been concerned about the lack of good options for his patients who were either diagnosed with low bone mass or whose mothers or grandmothers had developed osteoporosis and were concerned they were at risk as well. Usually healthy and active, and often in their 40’s or 50’s, these women were desperate to not become hunched over with osteoporosis, or even worse, break a hip and deal with the serious complications that often result. They were also worried about taking a pharmaceutical to prevent bone loss, having heard about the rare but potentially serious side effects. This left them with few options – primarily increased weight bearing exercise and nutritional supplements – and often anxious and discouraged. After finishing the article, Shane became genuinely excited about the possibilities for his patients and decided to dig deeper. 

Upon further research, Shane learned that vibration technology had good science and clinical validation behind it, and had been shown to reduce bone loss and even encourage bone growth. The deeper he went the more he learned that the problem with current vibration products was primarily the delivery mechanism. The vibration was being delivered via a platform that you had to stand on for 30 minutes and the platforms that actually helped improve bone health were quite expensive. In addition these vibration platforms shook the whole body, which wasn’t pleasant for some people, and they weren’t precisely targeted to the key areas of the body that need bone stimulation: the hips and spine. Consequently, they were not well known nor used. So he asked himself, what if there was a way to apply a convenient form of vibration technology for people at risk of osteoporosis? Enter co-founder Dan Burnett, MD. 

Dan and Shane had interned together at the Mayo Clinic and became friends, finding common ground in their desire to improve medicine and find new ways to treat challenging conditions. For years they had discussed how they might improve patient health and wellbeing, from liver disease to knee osteoarthritis to bone health; and Dan being the big idea guy usually had a novel approach that had never been tried. So when Shane brought up the idea of applying vibration technology as a way to prevent osteoporosis, in a more convenient, targeted form, Dan jumped on it. Together they began to conceptualize different ways the technology could be delivered. 

After some initial brainstorming they decided to try a vibrating seat cushion concept. After all, most of us spend a good portion of our day sitting, so wouldn’t it be convenient if you could be sitting at your desk and have your hips and spine stimulated so that your bones get healthier? The vibrating cushion concept worked, but the results were discouraging. Many testers reported it was uncomfortable to sit on and even made them a bit nauseous. Back to the drawing board. After kicking it around some more, Dan finally hit on what he thought would be a winning idea: a vibrating belt. It had a lot going for it. It could be positioned right over the sacrum and directly send vibration into the hips and spine where it was needed most. It was easy to wear a belt and modern electronics allowed it to be relatively light and compact. And perhaps most importantly, it was convenient to make part of a daily routine, so people at risk of osteoporosis would be more likely to actually use it consistently. 

So now for the big question: would it actually improve bone health as well as prescription drugs, weight bearing exercise or vibration platforms (or perhaps even better)? To answer this question, Shane and Dan followed good medical practice and began developing the idea for a clinical study. To help them in this cause they turned to one of the country’s foremost experts and researchers in osteoporosis, Dr. Laura Bilek. As a professor at the University of Nebraska, Laura had spent most of her career studying the disease, its effects and different ways to treat patients and improve their lives. Upon hearing about Dan and Shane’s novel approach to stimulate bones thereby preventing bone loss and encouraging bone growth, Laura agreed to help. She shared Shane’s concerns about the lack of options for people with low bone mass and if vibration therapy could work, it would be a game changer for millions of people at risk of developing osteoporosis and suffering debilitating fractures.  

As the plans for a clinical study were being developed, Dan and Shane’s team of engineers produced a vibrating belt for initial testing. Unlike the vibrating cushion, the feedback on the vibrating belt was positive. Early users liked the vibration sensation on their low back, and some even reported a relaxing of back muscles and easing of low back pain. No one reported any negative effects or sensations. Initial prototypes were a bit clunky, but after several iterations and some smart engineering they were able to get the size and weight down and make the belt easy to take on and off and comfortable to wear. Now they were ready for the real test: would the belt show positive results in a clinical trial.

The clinical trial that Dr. Bilek developed was elegantly simple. Recruit 15-20 women diagnosed with low bone density (or osteopenia), measure their bone mass, do a single treatment with the vibration belt and then measure the response via blood markers that indicate bone loss and bone growth. If the belt worked as hoped they would be able to see a response from the body; an indication that bone loss (resorption) had slowed down or that bone growth was created. The latter response, bone growth, was a longshot because it was looking at such a brief period of time (one 30 minute treatment) but they were hopeful that they might be able to see some slowing of bone loss. Further they wanted to determine if the vibration belt technology was equivalent to exercise or even prescription drug options in its effectiveness at fighting bone loss. When the results came in there was cause for celebration. The initial study of 17 women showed a reduction in NTX of 14%. NTX is one of the primary biomarkers associated with bone loss and a reduction of 14% in just one session was more than they had hoped for. This level of reduction in bone loss was similar to the effects from either exercise or prescription pharmaceuticals, and it was from just one 30 minute vibration therapy session. Imagine the possibilities if the belt was used consistently for a year. 

With that, Bone Health Technologies was born, and the OsteoBoost project was launched ….