New Irish 3D bone-scanning technique could do away with x-rays

8 Sep 2016

3D bone scan. Image via Shutterstock.

In what could have major implications for how bone injuries are diagnosed in the future, chemists from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) have devised a new 3D bone-scanning technique that doesn’t use x-rays.

The team of chemists led by TCD’s Thorri Gunnlaugsson and Esther Surender teamed up with the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) to help develop an advanced luminescent compound to reveal incredible detail about a patient’s bones.

When placed on bone, this compound seeps into its damaged areas, revealing them in minute detail using advanced computer imagery.

This advanced, 3D bone-scanning technique could prevent the need for bone implants in many cases, and could also act as an early-warning system for people at high risk of degenerative bone diseases, such as osteoporosis.

The compound consists of tiny gold structures that form biologically safe ‘nanoagents’. These nanoagents are attracted to calcium-rich surfaces that appear when bones crack, clinging to areas of even low-level damage.

These nanoagents target and highlight the cracks formed in bones, allowing researchers to produce a complete 3D image of the damaged regions.

Quality over quantity

Aside from the benefits this technology could bring in the treatment of bone conditions and injuries, it also removes the need to expose patients to x-ray radiation.

The red emitting gold-based nanoagents used in this alternative technique are biologically safe, unlike the carcinogenic x-rays.

According to RCSI’s Prof Clive Lee, who was involved in the project, this is the first time we can tell the ‘quality’ of bone, rather than just the ‘quantity’.

“By using our new nanoagent to label microcracks, and detecting them with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), we hope to measure both bone quantity and quality, and identify those at greatest risk of fracture and institute appropriate therapy,” he said.

“Diagnosing weak bones before they break should therefore reduce the need for operations and implants – prevention is better than cure.”

The team’s research has now been published in the journal Cell and was funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council.

Bone illustration image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic