Ron June and Michael Ruiz

Montana State University mechanical and industrial engineering professor Ron June studies a bone sample with anthropology student Michael Ruiz in a lab at MSU.

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A Montana State University researcher searching for ways to keep our joints healthy as we age recently received a $500,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.

The CAREER Award is the NSF's most prestigious award to support early career development of teacher-researchers. It’s particularly notable because it is awarded to a single person instead of a team, honoring outstanding faculty who haven't yet received tenure.

The grant will further the work of Ron June, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering in the MSU College of Engineering, who hopes his research will lead to advanced treatments for osteoarthritis, an aging-related disease in which cartilage deteriorates, resulting in painful joints and decreased mobility.

“People are living longer than ever, and the biggest risk factor for osteoarthritis is age,” June said. “With more than half of people over the age of 65 showing signs that their joints are deteriorating, we’d love to come up with a way that our last four decades of life do not involve joint pain.”

The cells that make up cartilage, called chondrocytes, respond chemically to the pressures that occur between bones, such as those that occur in our feet, legs, hips and backs as we walk.

“With every step we take, the cells are being squished, and their mechanical environments are constantly changing,” June said. “We’re at the tip of the iceberg in our understanding of how chondrocytes take mechanical information and convert that into biological signals that direct the function of the cells.”

Understanding these processes, he said, may lead to ways to prevent the deterioration of cartilage tissues, or even their regeneration after damage has occurred.

“It may be a pipe dream, but I’d love to come up with a drug that works in conjunction with the cells’ chemicals that would allow a patient to hop on an exercise bike and pedal for 20 minutes to regenerate cartilage,” June said.

The research at MSU may also reveal how other types of cells respond to mechanical environments.

“We could gain a better understanding of how cells of the vascular systems respond to the effects of heart disease, for instance,” June said. “A greater understanding of why we lose bone mass when we stop exercising could help us have stronger bones as we age. So, there could be wide applications for the work we’re currently doing.”

The grant will also enable June to increase the involvement of undergraduate and graduate students in his research. In addition to teaching undergraduates, June is adviser to three doctoral students.

“They’ll be doing mechanical compression testing, cell culture, biochemical extraction, and computational data analysis,” he said. “Involving undergraduate and graduate students makes it a better educational experience for everybody involved.”

“This CAREER award represents a high-risk, high-reward project that is likely to have a transformative impact on the field of mechanobiology and future treatments for aging and damage of cartilage,” said Kara Peters, NSF program director for the Mechanics of Materials and Structures Program. “Further, the educational and research integration plan may have a positive impact on increasing the number of Native American engineers in the workforce.”

Individuals who would like to learn more about June’s research are invited to attend a free public lecture about the development of novel strategies for treating osteoarthritis. June will deliver the lecture, “Toward Understanding Energy Usage to Improve Osteoarthritis," at 4:10 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, in the Procrastinator Theater in MSU’s Strand Union Building. A reception will follow.

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