Professor Qinghua Qin from the ANU College of Economics and Computer Science. Photo by Stuart Hay.

Professor Qinghua Qin from the ANU College of Economics and Computer Science. Photo by Stuart Hay.

Breaking down a crippling disease

More than six million Australians are predicted to suffer from bone diseases by 2022.

A team of ANU scientists are on the case to make their lives easier, as TEGAN KAHN, BMedSci (Hons) '09, reports.

Osteoporosis is a debilitating disease. As the bones become thinner and less dense, they become exceedingly fragile.

Painful fractures and breaks are a constant risk. 

Luckily, bones are pretty amazing structures and they have a remarkable capacity for remodelling.

If a piece of bone lost in a sheep, for example, is replaced with a piece of plaster, the bone will soon regrow around it and eventually absorb the artificial portion of limb.

Professor Qinghua Qin and his team at the ANU College of Economics and Computer Science are using the supercomputing facilities at the National Computational Infrastructure on ANU campus to understand exactly how this process works.

The aim is to slow down or prevent entirely the insidious progression of osteoporosis.

"There is a strong link between inactivity and loss of bone mass," explains Qin.

"People need sports and movement to keep their bones strong.

"We are using mathematical modelling to describe the process of bone degradation and establish the relationship between movement and bone density."

There are just two types of cells involved in bone regrowth: osteoblasts and osteoclasts.

Osteoblasts form bone cells, while osteoclasts absorb old osteoblasts and dissolve bone cells to reconstruct the shape of the bone.

"All bone remodelling at a cellular level is related to these two sorts of cells," says Qin's PhD candidate, Song Chen.

"Currently we are using the Raijin supercomputer to model the interaction between these two cells to predict how they proliferate."

The team is collaborating with orthopaedic surgeon Professor Paul Smith's team at the ANU Medical School.