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Boise State Biology Researcher Is Part of Bone Treatment Breakthrough

By:    Published 11:13 am / February 25, 2011

Julia Oxford, a biology professor and director of the Biomolecular Research Center at Boise State, helped discover an important mechanism in the process by which bones build and maintain strength and elasticity. The new knowledge could play a role in improving methods of preserving bone strength with age, which could have a significant impact in treating osteoporosis and other diseases that can lead to decreased bone mineral content, from HIV and epilepsy to juvenile diabetes.

Published in the Jan. 21 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the study was conducted by a collaborative group of researchers including Oxford and led by Jeff Gorski, a professor of oral biology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Oxford explained that the strength and hardness of bone is the result of a process called mineralization, where calcium phosphate crystals produced by bone-forming cells accumulate in the fibrous protein matrix that is the scaffolding of the bone itself.

“We found that mineralization depends on a specific enzyme called SKI-1, though it is just one of several proteins we’re looking at that play important roles in essential biological mechanisms,” she said. “Our growing understanding of these mechanisms could have significant implications in helping clinicians monitor bone health as well as diagnose and treat debilitating bone diseases.”

This mandible model represents the visualization of some of the data collected by professor Julia Oxford and her research team. They are collaborating with assistant professor Alark Joshi in the Department of Computer Science to develop such models for further study.

By studying bone cells in culture dishes, researchers in the collaborative study demonstrated that the deactivation of SKI-1 means bone mineralization cannot occur. They alternatively observed that if the actions of SKI-1 are stimulated, more mineralization takes place, triggering production of the proteins that form the bone’s mineralized matrix. Scientists may be able to use such enzyme regulation to stimulate bone formation after fracture.

Boise State students of biology and chemistry continue to collect data for the study. Those most directly involved in Oxford’s research are Ben Davis, Stephanie Frahs, Anthony Hafez, Jon Reeck, Luke Woodbury, Bryan Martin, Chris Mallory and Dawn Mikelonis.

A recently awarded $750,000 grant from NASA will support a related project led by Oxford in collaboration with biology professors Cheryl Jorcyk, Troy Rohn and Kristen Mitchell. It will build on years of work supported by the Idaho State Board of Education (SBOE).

Since 2007, the SBOE has contributed $1 million to Boise State for the formation of the Musculoskeletal Research Institute, co-directed by Oxford and biomedical engineering professor Michelle Sabick.

“We have been working to grow musculoskeletal research strength in Idaho, and the State Board is providing crucial infrastructure,” Oxford said.

Learn more about the findings of the study featured in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.