‘Bone is such a complex and fascinating material’

Research Lives: Prof Laoise McNamara, professor of biomedical engineering at NUI Galway, explains her work on bones

Prof Laoise McNamara: “Osteoporosis is a huge healthcare challenge, and that’s a big motivation to keep going with the research.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Prof Laoise McNamara: “Osteoporosis is a huge healthcare challenge, and that’s a big motivation to keep going with the research.” Photograph: Eric Luke

 

What do you work on?

We are trying to understand how bone responds to mechanical forces. The whole area is called “mechanobiology” and it is at the interface of engineering and biology.

So you want to beef up bones?

Yes. Just like muscle, bone is very much a living tissue and it adapts to its environment. For example, a tennis player such as Serena Williams will have more muscle mass in her serving arm, but also the bone material in that arm is stiffer and stronger because of the loads she puts on it. On the flip side, when astronauts are in space, the lack of gravity means less loading on their skeletons, and over time that weakens their bones.

So gravity and exercise help to keep our bones healthy?

That’s the thinking. We want to understand how bones change their biology in response to these forces, so we put bone cells in little reactors or chambers in the lab that replicate the body, and we subject them to loads and we measure aspects like their fluid flow. We also use computer simulations to help predict and understand what happens.

That sounds like a curious thing to do

It is fundamental research and it is funded by a European Research Council grant, which provides support for this kind of

blue-sky research that could ultimately help solve important health and societal problems. We also get funding through Science Foundation Ireland to look at ways we can biochemically target the processes behind bone loss in osteoporosis. So the project will hopefully have long-term impact.

Tell me about your typical working day

During term time I teach undergraduate students about medical devices, including how hip implants and stents are designed and made.

On the research side, there are eight PhD students, three postdocs and a research assistant in my lab. I meet with them and we talk about the science, how the individual projects are going. I also go to conferences to talk about the work and to learn more about what other researchers are doing.

What do you like about your research?

I find it all really interesting. Bone is such a complex and fascinating material and there are so many unanswered questions. Like: why is it so strong and yet lightweight? How can it adapt to change?

Osteoporosis is a huge healthcare challenge, and that’s a big motivation to keep going with the research.

Is bone tissue easy to work with?

Not always. Sometimes the biological material does what seems like odd things. In one long-running study, the cells were just not responding. We were trying all sorts of things and then one day we decided to turn the chambers upside down. Then the bone cells were happy and responded to the forces. You have to be patient when working with cells.

What do you do when you are not at work?

We have two young kids, so at the weekends we love cooking and we go out to the playground, the cinema, the pool. I used to be a very good swimmer – I once swam from Kinvara to Galway – and now I try to get swims in before work, if I can.

What would you like people to know about science?

A lot of the technology and medicines we use today wouldn’t exist without science, but it doesn’t happen overnight and we need to keep discovering new things and advancing our knowledge of the world.

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