3D scans could identify weak bones before they break

A new scanning technique with major implications for those at risk of developing bone diseases like osteoporosis has been created by a team of scientists working in Dublin.

The revolutionary scanning technique that produces high-res 3D images of bones, without exposing patients to X-ray radiation.

The discovery could, eventually, have benefits for people at risk of developing bone diseases like osteoporosis.

Researchers from Trinity College Dublin and the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) have developed biologically safe “nanoagents” which will allow scientists to capture high-quality 3D maps of bone damage through a non-invasive and radiation-free procedure.

The technique could be used for diagnosing weak bones before they break, reducing the need for operations, implants, and exposure to cancerous emissions from X-rays.

The research team was led by Trinity chemistry professor Thorri Gunnlaugsson and Dr Esther Surender.

Prof Gunnlaugsson said: “The impact is long term as we still have to bring our discovery to the clinic but being able to determine bone quality really impacts everyone.”

Professor of anatomy at RCSI Clive Lee said: “Current X-ray techniques can tell us about the quantity of bone present but they do not give much information about bone quality.”

In its research work, the team created a specific molecule designed to lock on to calcium produced in micro-cracks — tiny fractures that occur in bone through everyday activity. Micro-cracks are normally repaired by the body. However, the cracks can develop faster for athletes or elderly people suffering from osteoporosis leading to stress or fragility fractures.

The molecule or nano-agent, meanwhile, is created by attaching luminescent compounds to tiny gold structures and is biologically safe.

The nanoagents created by the team help researchers create complete 3D images of bone, by labelling the damaged area for detection using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The scans will aid scientists in visualising both the depth and scale of the crack and offer targeted therapy.

The technique could also mean a reduction in radiation exposure for patients, doses of which are emitted through X-rays and are associated with an increased risk of cancer.

Dr Surender said the new technique has great potential for clinical purposes, achieved by the team in two ways. By using gold structures, the team was able to lower the concentration of the agent needed when administered to a patient, she said.

“Secondly, by using what is called ‘two-photon excitation’ we were able to image bone structure using long wavelength excitation, which is not harmful or damaging to biological tissues.”

Prof Gunnlaugsson said: “While we cannot see what the future will look like, the impact I would guess would be most felt in preventative medicine for all ages.”

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