While it may seem that our bones are static and unchanging, they are actually in a state of constant flux: while some cells make new bone, others dissolve old bone. In the first year of life almost 100% of the skeleton is replaced, while in adults this slows to around 10% per year.

In osteoporosis the balance between the building up and breaking down of bone is disrupted – bone is broken down faster than it is made, leading to a net decrease in bone mass and an increased risk of fractures. Osteoporosis is known as the ‘silent disease’ because there are often no signs or symptoms until a fracture happens. These fractures may result in chronic pain, disability, a loss of independence and even premature death.

Every 6 minutes, someone is admitted to an Australian hospital with an osteoporotic fracture. One in two Australian women and one in three men over 60 years will have an osteoporotic fracture in their lifetime. This rate will increase considerably as our population ages. Over 2 million Australians are affected by the disease, which costs an estimated $1 billion per year in direct health costs.

Researchers in SVI’s Bone Cell Biology and Disease Unit have identified new therapeutic targets that may be used to treat osteoporosis by studying the cells that build bone (osteoblasts), the cells that destroy bone (osteoclasts), and the way these cells interact with each other and their environment. Ultimately, the aim is to identify new ways to promote bone formation.

As well as importance for the development of new osteoporosis treatments, this research also has implications for breast cancer, as the chemotherapy used to treat secondary cancers that spread to bone can actually destroy bone, allowing the cancer to spread further.

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