Math Professor Studies Bone Regeneration

Alicia Prieto Langarica, a YSU assistant professor of math and statistics, is working with Marnie Saunders, a bioengineer in Akron, to see how gravity affects bone regeneration.

Prieto Langarica explained that bones contain two types of cells: cells that eat bone and cells that generate new bone.

“So, every day when you’re walking or moving or hitting something, you get mini fractures on your bones,” Prieto Langarica explained. “Once a mini fracture happens, there are all these signals that come out and say, ‘Hey, there’s a mini fracture here.’ So the cell comes around and they eat around the fracture. They take away the dead stuff and make a little dent [in your bone].”

The other cell fills that dent with new bone, repairing the mini fracture.

“When you’re little, the one that puts the bone works more than [the one that takes away bone]. Because you’re growing, you have to put more bone than you’re actually eating,” Prieto Langarica said. “But everybody — no matter who you are, either you’re a man or a woman — at some point you’re ‘putting bone’ cell is going to stop working or is going to work slower, but the eating bone cell is going to keep working so you get osteoporosis.”

What Prieto Langarica and Saunders are interested in is seeing how no gravity affects this process.

“All of the astronauts, when they come back, have osteoporosis. All of them,” Prieto Langarica said. “We think  — and this is just a theory — when you’re just floating in space you don’t have those mini fractures, so the eating bone happens, but there’s not putting back, so you come back [from space] and the density of your bones is really low.”

They’re working on creating a computer simulation model to showcase the act of the bone being broken down and then how it builds back up.

“I create little simulation movies that show exactly what’s happening in the cells, but with matrices,” Prieto Langarica said.  “If you have a model that does what you’re biology is doing, you can test things on your model.”

Testing on a mathematical model is much more economical than testing on real bone samples, considering slices of actual bone are extremely expensive. By using a mathematical model, they can write experiments that they need, instead of experimenting with everything.

Prieto Langarica and Saunders have applied for a grant to continue their research, and have hopes of someday having their model tested in space.