Needless to say, without bones in our bodies, we would not be able to survive. Bones provide support, give bodies shape, provide protection to other systems and organs, provide attachments for muscles, and contain the bone marrow where blood cells are produced. Bones are living tissues that are rebuilt throughout a person’s life. The rebuilding of bone is a slow process and maintaining a healthy diet and balanced lifestyle is essential. One cannot expect a quick fix when ailments such as low bone density present themselves, stresses Dr Magdalena Coetzee, senior lecturer in the Department of Physiology and Head of the Cellular Bone Research Group at the University of Pretoria (UP).
Healthy diet and lifestyle are necessary to ensure strong bones, whereas a diet with insufficient calcium and vitamin D, and a lifestyle that lacks exercise can contribute to bone loss. Smoking and too much alcohol also contribute to weak bones, explains Dr Coetzee. Furthermore, bone diseases weaken bones, making them brittle and easy to break. Bone diseases range from osteoporosis to cancers that have spread to the bone from other parts of the body.
Bone density decreases gradually after 35 years of age and bone loss occurs more rapidly in women after menopause. Osteoporosis is characterised by a decrease in the density of bone, making bones almost sponge-like, and increases the risk of bones breaking. It is more common in women than in men – particularly during menopause, when oestrogen levels are reduced.
The Cellular Bone Research Group at UP aims to gain a better understanding of bones and such diseases in order to find ways to improve the health of bones by preventing, slowing down or stopping the degradation of bone. While treatment options to improve bone density are available, there is no quick solution, and prolonged periods of treatment are required. With this in mind, the Group focuses a large part of their research on lifestyle changes.
Looking for accessible and cost-effective ways to improve bone health is a core research focus area of the Group. Their current research focuses on nutritional supplements, such as nutraceuticals, and how they affect bones at a cellular level. Nutraceuticals are naturally occurring compounds that improve health and have medical benefits, in addition to their basic nutritional value. Nutraceuticals are also known as functional foods and are usually readily available and inexpensive, making them a viable option for all economic levels of society, especially poorer communities that cannot afford expensive drugs. Dr Coetzee notes that while such forms of supplementation might not cure bone conditions, they do show positive results for slowing the degradation process, and it would therefore be beneficial to incorporate them into daily living.
The Group predominantly works on commercially available osteoblast and osteoclast cells. Osteoblasts are cells that form bone, while osteoclasts are cells which resorb or break down bone tissue during growth and healing. Recent studies by one of the Group’s doctoral students, Abe Kasonga, looked at human osteoclasts, making use of a technique he learnt at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. This technique utilises monocytes, a type of white blood cell, isolated from human blood to create osteoclasts. Dr Coetzee explains that using human bone cells is always ideal because it gives a good indication of how these cells could react in our bodies.
While there is already clear evidence that fatty acids are beneficial for brain development, heart disease and diabetes, exactly how fatty acids benefit bone cells is still uncertain. Kasonga is looking at how fatty acids affect cells and which receptors in bone cells bind to these fatty acids to have the positive effects they seem to have. This work is proving very novel and exciting.
Other research the Group is conducting looks at how certain fatty acids can potentially slow the spreading of cancers into the bone. Preliminary findings suggest that these fatty acids are able to reduce the ability of the cancer cells to migrate to the bone. The Group is confident that with the necessary funding, they will be able to apply their findings at the cellular level to find more definitive answers. Research on local teas such as rooibos and honeybush, which are high in antioxidants, also forms part of the group’s focus areas, looking at ways to optimise lifestyle with minimal and inexpensive changes.
Making informed decisions aids a holistic approach to health, and Dr Coetzee encourages society to make informed decisions, because many small changes can have a positive effect. Instead of using sunflower oil, for instance, opt for canola or olive oil, because these oils contain more of the healthy fatty acids. Incorporate rooibos tea into your daily choice of drinks. Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, running and weight training are also very good for ensuring healthy and strong bones.
The Cellular Bone Research Group at UP aims to gain a better understanding of bones and such diseases in order to find ways to improve the health of bones by preventing, slowing down or stopping the degradation of bone.