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Digging for clues

Posted: 15th May 2019

Bones are hard in more ways than one.
It’s not surprising to discover that medical researchers find it tricky to get access to samples of living human bone. For this reason, much of our understanding of how bone cells work has derived from experiments carried out in animals.
SVI’s Professor Natalie Sims says that understanding what is occurring within human bone during the development of osteoporosis is essential in order to find new ways to detect and treat the condition.
“Osteoporosis is becoming more common as the population ages. The standard test is a bone mineral density scan, but about 60% of fragility fractures actually happen in people who have normal scans. This means that we are not currently able to reliably predict who is at risk.”
What’s more, Natalie says that the most common treatments for osteoporosis stop bone from becoming more fragile, but do not make it stronger. She says that research using human bone samples is required to understand more about how the skeleton works, and how it reacts as a person ages.
Natalie has found a way to address the difficulties in accessing human bone samples. When someone has a major bone fracture, they often undergo surgery to stabilize the bone. Surgeons use a process called reaming – essentially coring out a hole in the bone – to provide an anchor point for a pin or hip replacement.
Natalie has marshalled doctors from Western Hospital, Monash Medical Centre and St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne to provide her group with the bone debris from surgeries that they carry out in postmenopausal women with osteoporotic fractures. This bone is usually discarded as a useless by-product of the surgery.
Natalie and her team will collect the precious samples and grow them in the laboratory. She will then isolate the different bone cell types. By comparing which genes are active or inactive in these cell types, she hopes to identify the profile of genes that make some people more prone to particular fractures than others.
Bones are hard. So is medical research. But for Natalie, the effort is worthwhile

For more information please see: Bone cell biology and disease