Bone fractures are undesirable for any person, but a hip fracture is especially dangerous for elderly; one-quarter of patients will die from complications within a year. “That’s a little ridiculous this day and age,” says Purdue University researcher and Novosteo, Inc. co-founder Dr. Stewart Low. The West Lafayette-based startup is developing a drug that would be the only one to specifically target a fracture and speed healing, and it’s taking aim at hip fractures first.

“There have been some advancements in [treating] bone fractures, but hip fractures still kill a phenomenal number of people,” says Low, who is also a post-doctoral research associate at Purdue’s Drug Discovery Facility. “Worldwide, there are about 1.6 million hip fractures each year, and that number is expected to grow to about 4.5 million or 6.3 million by 2050.”

Low notes the treatment options are few for bone fracture patients. Currently, there are two drugs on the market to treat bone fractures; they’re injected and act on the entire skeletal system—not just the fracture—as they circulate throughout the body. A third option is a drug that can be applied directly to the surface of the fracture during surgery, for example, but Low describes it as an “incredibly invasive process.” The drug can also leak into surrounding tissue and erroneously grow bone within muscle.

Novosteo’s technology is an injection, but has a key differentiator: as the drug circulates throughout the body, it targets only the fracture and accumulates there to speed the healing process.

“The real advantage of this technique is that we’re able to deliver larger amounts of [the bone-healing drug], because it’s not affecting other parts of the body,” says Low. “Because our drug selectively accumulates in just the bone fracture, we can inject more and inject it regularly, and it will only affect the bone fracture, rather than other organs and other sites of the body.”

Low says the body naturally makes proteins and peptides to repair itself; for example, proteins tell cells around the bone to grow more bone. Low says Novosteo is making synthetic versions of those peptides and proteins in the laboratory, “and we can modify them in a way that they only accumulate in bone fractures.”

One could say such targeting ability is, literally, in Low’s blood. His father, Dr. Philip Low, is Novosteo’s co-founder and a well-known trailblazer in Indiana’s life sciences landscape, starting multiple companies. In addition to being Purdue Institute for Drug Discovery’s director, Philip founded and is part of the leadership teams for Endocyte Inc. and On Target Laboratories, both of which design and develop targeted technologies for cancer. Stewart says his father taught him how to think scientifically from a very young age.

“For one of my first show-and-tells in first grade, I brought some Indian corn to school,” says Stewart. “He wouldn’t let me take it in until I understood and could explain that it was a mutation in the genes that caused the Indian corn to be purple, blue and all these different colors. We’ve been talking about science for as long as I can remember.”

Those scientific conversations have continued into adulthood, and Stewart says their collaborative thinking gives birth to new ideas and helps them build on each other’s discoveries.

“He has many connections, many tools at his disposal and a lot of experience in the general drug delivery field,” says Stewart. “You pair that with me, who has a great focus on this project and has been working on it for quite a while, and there’s a great deal of synergistic thinking between the two of us.”

The father-son duo is now focused on preparing the bone-healing drug for clinical trials. Although Stewart notes it could have applications for athletes, complicated fractures or trauma patients, Novosteo will initially focus on hip fractures in the elderly.

In addition to helping a vulnerable patient population, Novosteo believes the drug could dramatically cut the cost to treat a hip fracture, which is currently estimated at $80,000.

“People share their stories with me about their bones not healing, and it reminds me regularly that there are people out there who really need a solution to fracture-healing,” says Stewart, “and we really hope we can provide that solution.”