Poor musculoskeletal health, fall-related injuries, physical inactivity and ageing are the leading causes of disease globally, but research into their management has traditionally been fragmented and under-supported.
A new partnership between the University of Sydney and two local health districts is set to transform our management of these issues by supporting world-leading multidisciplinary research across the full range of musculoskeletal issues, and rapidly translating the resulting knowledge into clinical practice and education.
Sydney Musculoskeletal Health (Sydney MSK), a partnership between the University of Sydney, Sydney Local Health District and North Sydney Local Health District, will link researchers from across the University with clinicians, consumers, policymakers and industry.
Launching during International Bone and Joint Action Week 2021, it will also promote evidence-based physical activity and healthy ageing, giving it a uniquely comprehensive focus across the full spectrum of musculoskeletal health.
Musculoskeletal conditions encompass more than 150 disorders, from fractures to arthritis, which affect mobility, physical function and ability to work and participate in society. Since they typically involve pain, they also affect quality of life.
World Health Organization data show that the number of affected people worldwide is approaching 2 billion. Around one-third of Australians have some form of musculoskeletal condition, with our estimated cost exceeding $55 billion.
Sydney Musculoskeletal Health’s two academic co-directors – Professor Chris Maher, world leader in back pain research, and Professor David Hunter, his counterpart in osteoarthritis research – explain what makes this partnership unique.
“At the University of Sydney we’ve got a really stellar team of people who are world leaders in a number of areas of musculoskeletal health,” says Professor Maher.
“Collectively, our work runs the whole gamut of health care, from research into musculoskeletal tissue replacements to healthcare delivery to education of future clinicians.
"This partnership is a fabulous opportunity to make a real difference by combining this work and translating it directly into health delivery contexts.”
Professor Hunter emphasises the unparalleled breadth and depth of Sydney Musculoskeletal Health’s vision: “Its comprehensive focus encompasses all the musculoskeletal conditions, rather than just a particular one as many groups do."
"This ensures that all applicable research will be translated across all relevant applications. And the partnership between the University and the two health districts means this research can be put into practice sooner.”
It’s truly multidisciplinary, both within the medical sciences and across other faculties, with collaborations involving disciplines from orthopaedics to physiotherapy to dietetics to engineering.
An example of the cross-disciplinary research Sydney Musculoskeletal Health’s people are already conducting is a project led by the Faculty of Engineering’s Professor Hala Zreiqat AM, whose team also includes cell and molecular biologists and clinicians from across the University and beyond.
Together they have developed a world-first biocompatible ceramic that can be 3D-printed and implanted to help repair injured or diseased human bones.
The novel material, whose structure and strength resemble those of human bone, acts as a scaffold for the body’s natural process of bone regeneration, and gradually degrades as it is replaced by natural bone.
Associate Professor Elizabeth Clarke from the Faculty of Medicine and Health and her team of academic and industry partners are investigating the use of kangaroo tendons – a by-product of kangaroo meat processing – in human joint reconstruction surgery, acknowledging their vastly superior length and strength compared to traditional porcine, synthetic and human tendon grafts.
As well as developing new treatments, Sydney Musculoskeletal Health researchers are reviewing the efficacy of current treatments to ensure that clinical guidelines keep pace with research.
A world-first trial led by Sydney School of Public Health’s Professor Christine Lin is evaluating the effectiveness of opioids in alleviating acute spinal pain. Surprisingly, while their risks are well known, no data yet exists on whether they effectively relieve back pain.
In addition to treatments, Sydney Musculoskeletal Health addresses the prevention of musculoskeletal disorders. The 2020 WHO global guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour were developed by an international group of experts co-chaired by the School of Health Science’s Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis and involving other Sydney researchers including Associate Professor Anne Tiedemann.
With collaborations such as these already transforming our understanding, prevention and treatment of musculoskeletal conditions, it’s clear that bringing them all together through Sydney Musculoskeletal Health will see musculoskeletal health go from strength to strength.