Posted: 12th August 2018
Associate Professor Natalie Sims has been awarded a Research Fellowship in the most recent round of NHMRC funding, announced yesterday.
Natalie’s work is focused on understanding the signaling pathways that control bone development and growth, with the aim of using these pathways to influence the outcome of bone disease such as osteoporosis.
Natalie says that the design of the Eiffel Tower was based on the structure of bone. This isn’t just the obsession of a single-minded scientist who sees her work reflected in the world around her. Apparently, Gustav Eiffel, when designing his now famous tower, was influenced by the work of anatomist Hermann von Meyer, who published some of the first detailed studies on the internal structure of the human thighbone.
Natalie says, “The pattern of struts and spars in the Eiffel Tower distributes weight and stress in the same way that the internal structure of bone – called trabecular bone– does. This means that our bones are light, but are still able to absorb the forces that occur when we jump a puddle or run for the tram.”
Natalie says that while we need our bones to be hard, this feature poses some unique difficulties for researchers like her. First, the nature of the tissue itself. “Because bone is so hard, we can’t easily see what is happening inside it – it is particularly complicated to cut through bone without destroying its internal structure unless you use specialised methods. For obvious reasons, we also can’t easily get samples from patients. Also, bone structure is different in every part of the body - you can’t take a sample from the base of the Eiffel Tower and use that to understand what a bit at the top might be like. In the same way, what is happening inside say, the ankle, is often different to what is happening in another part of the skeleton.”
As a PhD student, Natalie spent a lot of time looking at bone slices down a microscope.
“Right about that time, people were starting to develop genetically modified mice and there was a real need for expertise in bone structure to help understand the influence of specific genes on that structure.”
Thanks to the skills that she has developed since then, Natalie has been highly sought after as an expert on bone structure. Much of her own career has been focused on studying the cells and signaling pathways that are responsible for the way that bone is composed. In 2018, she took on new responsibilities when she was appointed Deputy Director of SVI, an acknowledgement of her leadership role at the Institute, and of the high esteem in which she is held in the scientific community.
Recent studies from Natalie’s team have used genetically modified mice and the power of the Australian Synchrotron to examine bone structure in unprecedented detail – detail which Hermann Von Meyer himself could not possibly have imagined.