Our human bones are under constant attack. From the moment we are born, they are fending off against aging and degenerative diseases. Some begin to crumble under the weight of cancer and there is evidence that time in gravity free space also weakens our bones.
At UCF, Melanie Coathup is working to find ways to protect our bones from all these threats. Each threat causes damage in its own unique way. It’s a complex process, which is one of the reasons Coathup is so passionate about her research work.
She has dedicated her life to figuring out how bones are impacted and developing new technologies and therapies that can protect and, when needed, repair or rebuild those bones.
“I’m not sure if I’m curious or just plain nosy, but I like to understand what is happening and why,” she says. “I like doing puzzles and I think this is also linked in with my love of research.”
The UK native is already recognized for her work in developing a novel synthetic bone substitute material called Inductigraft, which boosts bone repair and regeneration, and is mainly used in spinal fusion surgery. That work has been recognized internationally through her publications and several U.K., European and international prizes from her peers.
But she’s not done revolutionizing patient care yet. She is currently working on developing a nanoparticle that mimics a type of enzyme in the body. That enzyme (protein) helps protect bones. She’s partnered with UCF Engineering Professor Sudipta Seal — a leader in nanotechnology — to create the “nanoenzyme.”
When patients are exposed to radiation, bones can become much more fragile and easier to break, Coathup says. Radiation exposure also impairs the bone healing response, and this can lead to many complications when the body is trying to repair the fracture. In some cases, it can lead to amputation, she says.
“Of course, radiotherapy is a vital component of cancer care,” she says. “However, at the moment, there is no effective way of protecting our bones against the damage caused by the radiation.”
The nanoenzyme work is promising, she says. She has found that the nanozyme is effective in protecting cells against the DNA damage caused by radiotherapy and that it also increases the levels of new bone formation despite being exposed to harmful levels of radiation. The nanoenzyme also appears to protect red and white blood cells and platelets in the blood, which all suffer under radiotherapy.
Bones also react differently in space. She’s looking at how space orbit causes bone loss in astronauts and finding ways to prevent it. She is part of a research team that will be conducting a study on a space rocket later this year to better understand how fluid changes in microgravity contribute to bone degeneration.
The study will examine fluid changes in a 3D printed bone structure to see how microgravity changes the flow of fluid through this structure compared to fluid flow in normal gravity.
“The ultimate goal is to improve the future care and treatment of people, thereby positively impacting quality of life, promoting more active lifestyles and social engagement — and creating an overall healthier community,” she says.
Helping people is part of Coathup’s core. Her parents, a schoolteacher and an engineer, emphasized the importance of an education to make the world a better place. Although Coathup lost her mother when she was only 15, her example is a continued source of inspiration.
“She was my whole world, and I am still heartbroken,” she says. “It was devastating to watch her slowly waste away. She died 5 months before my final exams in high school. I didn’t do as well as I hoped, but I got through. She was a strong lady and incredibly creative. She could cook or bake anything and was also an incredibly talented seamstress. We used to have countless people at the house because she used to sew clothes for many people in our small village — including making many of the carnival costumes each year. She had so much love and support to give, and I wish I could have learned more from her, but I’m incredibly grateful for the short time that we shared.”
Coathup completed her undergraduate studies in medical cell biology and a Ph.D. in orthopedic implant fixation at the University of Liverpool in the UK.
In 2017 she joined the College of Medicine and became the director of UCF’s Biionix faculty cluster — a multidisciplinary team of researchers working to develop innovative materials, processes and interfaces for advanced medical implants, tissue regeneration, prostheses, and other future high-tech products.
“I thoroughly enjoy working in STEM and I’m so glad that I chose this as my career,” she says. “Although few, the women working in STEM continually inspire me with their amazing work, and I’m always mindful of the powerful and enduring legacies of the courageous women who carved out the way for us. My goal now is to keep on encouraging and inspiring future generations of women, and I look forward to celebrating their successes.”