Orthopaedic Research and Biotechnology Unit

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The Orthopaedic Research and Biotechnology Unit (ORB) aims to advance orthopaedic care through an improved understanding of bone diseases, bone healing and pharmaceutical therapies. Its research approach is highly translational, bridging the gap from bench to bedside.

ORB encompasses 11 dedicated research staff working on a wide range of translational projects. It has had significant academic and grant success, including five prestigious national NHMRC grants with a combined value of over $1.5 million as well as other small grants and industry collaborations. The Unit has been credited with 37 peer-review publications in the last five years, many in high impact bone and orthopaedic journals.

Research achievements

ORB pioneered the use of bisphosphonates in paediatric medicine and this work is now directly helping children within the hospital. Associate Professor Little's bisphosphonate research is internationally recognised. This work has led to the development of one of the ORB's main research themes – optimisation of the anabolic (bone-forming) and catabolic (bone-resorbing) responses. It has had success in combining local anabolic treatment with systemic bisphosphonate therapy. The Unit is continuing to explore this drug combination experimentally as well as applying it to clinical situations.

NF1 is a common genetic disease, affecting 1 in 3000 children, that often manifests as tumour formation. These children can also develop severe orthopaedic problems, including scoliosis (curvature of the spine) and a congenital tibial dysplasia. Orthopaedic surgery on NF1 children has a poor prognosis due to underlying problems with bone healing. ORB has been one of the leading contributors in the international push to define the mechanism of these bone defects, and has published studies that indicate that dual problems in bone anabolism and bone catabolism may both contribute to the NF1 bone phenotype.

In a recent world first, ORB has unequivocally demonstrated that cells from the surrounding muscle are critical in serious skeletal injury. These cells make a key contribution to bone formation and repair, and we are already learning how to manipulate these findings to provide improved outcomes for children. This project may also result in new cell-based therapies for bone repair that utilise muscle cells.

Other work involves promoting fracture repair with the use of novel pharmaceutical agents which can bolster the bone forming anabolic response, while keeping the bone resorbing catabolic response to a minimum.