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Research at SwRI may provide a better understanding of osteoporosis and how it affects bone strength

In collaboration with Case Western Reserve University, scientists are investigating the mechanisms that cause bone to weaken

San Antonio -- November 24, 1997 -- Researchers at Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®)  are investigating the mechanisms that cause bones to weaken. As people age, changes occur in their bones, making them more vulnerable to fractures. A better understanding of the mechanisms that cause these changes in bone could help the 28 million Americans who are at risk for osteoporosis.

In addition to providing support for the body and protecting vital organs, the skeleton also adapts to environmental requirements. "Bone is a 'smart' material that changes in size and density in response to the demands placed on it," says Daniel P. Nicolella, a senior research engineer in the SwRI Materials and Structures Division. The most striking examples of environmental adaptation are in professional athletes, who undergo increased bone size and density as a result of extreme skeletal loads, and in astronauts, who experience a decrease in bone density because of an absence of loads in the weightless environment of space.

Under a four-year contract with the National Institutes of Health, SwRI is collaborating with Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) to investigate the mechanisms that cause bone to weaken. "Everyday activities damage bone, and this damage is normally repaired in a continuous remodeling process. When an imbalance in this remodeling process occurs, bones may become more susceptible to fractures," says Nicolella. SwRI and CWRU researchers are attempting to better characterize this damage, which is in the form of tiny cracks, and understand how the presence of damage affects overall bone strength. In a separate internal research program, Nicolella and colleagues determined that skeletal bone strains encountered during normal daily activities result in local microstructural strains that can be many times greater than was previously thought and may result in regions of localized bone damage. These findings could help researchers determine how mechanical signals are interpreted by the cells that control bone remodeling and may lead to a better understanding of the bone adaptation process.

SwRI researchers are using micromechanics and advanced materials characterization to better understand the physical nature of bone damage, bone mechanotransduction (the interpretation of mechanical signals by the cells), the implications of age in bone deterioration, and the effects of metabolic changes on bone stiffness and strength. Results may help researchers mitigate or even reverse the problems caused by bone diseases such as osteoporosis. Nicolella says further research could also improve joint implant designs, help prevent the risk of fracture from falls, and determine the maximum length of time that astronauts can safely reside in space.

For more information about SwRI's bone research, contact Maria Stothoff, Communications Department, Southwest Research Institute, P.O. Drawer 28510, San Antonio, Texas 78228-0510, Phone (210) 522-3305, Fax (210) 522-3547.

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