MSU professor wins CAREER Award for research on osteoarthritis

An MSU professor is conducting research which will potentially lead to new treatments for a disease that affects 50 million Americans. The National Science Foundation awarded Ron June, Ph.D., an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, the CAREER award: a $500,000 grant to further his work in osteoarthritis. He aims to develop a drug to regenerate the cartilage tissue the disease affects, which will require research that has never been done before.

June obtained his undergraduate degree in engineering sciences at Dartmouth College, where he was involved in research measuring acceleration in the heads of football and hockey players in order to develop more effective helmets. He moved on to graduate studies at University of California-Davis, where a wide array of research in biomechanics furthered his interest in cartilage mechanics, as did postdoctoral studies at the VA Hospital in San Diego in a rheumatology lab. He came to MSU in 2011 and began his research in osteoarthritis. June was granted the CAREER Award this month, which is a prestigious award given to a single junior faculty member who exemplifies the role of a scholar and a researcher.  

Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage at the end of bones deteriorates, often affecting the knees, hips, spine and hands. With the largest risk for the disease being age, little can be done after diagnosis. The disease causes stiff and painful joints as cartilage is unable to keep up with regular wear and tear. This leads to a cycle of weight gain and worsened symptoms. There are no drugs currently available for treatment, leaving joint replacements as a last option. However, many patients cannot undergo the procedures due to the risks, and if eligible the surgeries are painful, expensive and can only be done a limited number of times.

This is where June is directing his work. “I would love to give the opportunity to people to live the last decade of two of their lives in dramatically less pain and with greater function,” June said. “The goal of my research program is to come up with new ideas for drugs that can help to slow the onset of osteoarthritis.” He is looking to determine the energy metabolism in tissue cells, and whether the cartilage is able to convert mechanical energy into biochemical energy. Ultimately, this could lead to finding drugs to aid in cartilage regeneration.

June’s team consists of 12 MSU researchers. He coordinates with many departments on campus, as well in the Bozeman community and throughout the country. Due to a strong core in mass spectrometry and building of specialized equipment, MSU has a unique setup that has allowed for opportunities that other universities are unable to provide. Graduate and undergraduate students from a wide variety of fields are allowed to develop their own projects that aid in the basic research needed to understand the complexities of the disease.

Additionally, the MSU and Bozeman communities have been very collaborative in their efforts. Medical institutions in Bozeman have provided the team with raw material. Procedures done at the hospital and other establishments provide tissues and joints to the research team that otherwise would have been thrown away.

If June’s hypotheses are proven correct, drugs may be developed to delay or stop the onset of osteoarthritis in the next few decades. He attributes the success of his program thus far to the emphasis MSU places on research. “Not only enabling but requiring faculty to do research is something MSU in particular is far-sighted on, and in my opinion, that will result in better experiences in the classroom,” June said. “A lot people try to separate research and teaching, but I don’t think you can. They need to be integrated, and bringing cutting edge research into the classroom.”