Treating osteoporosis

Sitting on Natalie Sims’ desk, sandwiched between her computer and a teetering pile of paperwork, is a photo of a younger Natalie in a graduation gown, flanked proudly by two older ladies, complete with cardigans and hair obviously set for the occasion.

Natalie was particularly close to one of these ladies, her ‘Nana Sims’, with whom she lived while completing her studies at Adelaide University.

During that time, Nana Sims fell in the garden and broke her shoulder; the result of a process of bone thinning, which is such an accepted part of ageing that it was not further investigated, or treated.

“She took a long time to recover from the accident, and felt the effects for years afterwards”, says Natalie, “She often used to tease me by asking, ‘Haven’t you found a cure for this yet?’”

Natalie says that her grandmother’s condition fueled her interest in bone and how the cells of bone communicate with each other.

Our skeletons are completely renewed every decade, a process which occurs thanks to the fine balance between the cells that breakdown bone, called osteoclasts, and ones that build bone, osteoblasts. When this balance is disrupted it can lead to osteoporosis, the joint destruction seen in arthritis and can also aid the spread of cancer to bone.

Research at SVI focused on understanding how the bone cells work within the context of the rest of the body.

The key questions that SVI researchers are trying to answer are:

  • How do cells of bone talk to each other?
  • How these cells talk to the cells of the marrow?
  • How do bone cells respond in joint destruction and cancer?
  • How do they influence other organs, including the kidney and pancreas?

Sadly, when Natalie was undertaking postdoctoral work at Yale, she received the news that her grandmother had fallen and broken her hip; she died less than 24 hours later.

By reducing the impact of these diseases, Natalie hopes to help people like her grandmother live longer and healthier lives.