NORTH-EAST academics are leading an international, multi-million pound, research project to look at the genetic causes of bone diseases.

The European Commission has awarded more than £10m to SYBIL, a five year project led by Newcastle University involving 18 partners across Europe.

Scientists hope to make breakthroughs in the treatment of these diseases, which affect tens of thousands of people in the UK and across Europe.

Using cell, fish and mouse models, the project aims to study the genetic causes of both common and rare skeletal diseases, to understand how the disease develops, age-related changes and to deliver new disease biomarkers and identify targets for treatments.

These are likely to involve the use of pluripotent stem cells, a type of cell which can be transformed into any type of human tissue.

Among the diseases that will be investigated are osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, which the World Health Organisation estimates affects 25 per cent of adults aged over 65.

The team will also focus on osteoporosis, a disease in which the density of bones is reduced, leading to weakness and increased risk of fractures.

It is a major cause of injury, as over a lifetime up to half of all women and a third of all men will suffers an osteoporotic fracture.

Both osteoarthritis and osteoporosis become more common with age and result in a loss of independence with a greatly reduced quality of life and represent a major healthcare burden of increasing scale in Europe as the population continues to age.

Michael Briggs, professor of skeletal genetics at Newcastle University, will lead the SYBIL project.

He said: "This project has great potential to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. If we can identify the genes and study the genetic processes that cause these diseases then we can think about developing treatments which could really help people."

Another group of diseases which the researchers hope to help treat are Rare Skeletal Diseases.

Prof Briggs added: "We will be trying to prove the genetic cause of these diseases and studying disease mechanisms in model systems.

"Once we have identified those genes and disease processes we can look for biomarkers - substances that can be used as a biological indicator of disease - and then hopefully find mechanisms that we can target as potential therapies."