Irish scientists have devised a revolutionary new scanning technique that produces extremely high-res 3D images of bones, sparing patients exposure to X-ray radiation.
The chemists in Trinity College and the Royal College of Surgeons (RCSI) said the technique could have major benefits for healthcare, allowing a patient's bone strength to be assessed in detail. The elderly and athletes will be among those to benefit.
It works by forming agents that are attracted to calcium-rich surfaces, which appear when bones crack, even at a micro level.
X-rays give off radiation and have, in some cases, been associated with an increased risk of cancer. The red, gold-based agents used in this alternative technique are biologically safe.
The researchers point out that gold has been used safely by medics in a variety of ways in the body for some time.
A spokesman for Trinity College said these nanoagents target and highlight the cracks formed in bones, allowing researchers to produce a complete 3D image of the damage.
The spokesman pointed out that it could give a detailed blueprint of the extent and precise positioning of any weakness or injury in the bone.
"Additionally, this knowledge should help prevent the need for bone implants in many cases, and act as an early warning system for people at a high risk of degenerative bone diseases."
The research is led by Trinity Professor of Chemistry Thorri Gunnlaugsson and Postdoctoral Researcher Esther Surender.
Prof Gunnlaugsson pointed out: "This work is the outcome of many years of successful collaboration between chemists from Trinity and medical and engineering experts from RCSI.
"We have demonstrated that we can achieve a three-dimensional map of bone damage, showing the so-called microcracks, using non-invasive luminescence imaging.
"The nanoagent we have developed allows us to visualise the nature and the extent of the damage in a manner that wasn't previously possible."
Diagnosing weak bones before they break should cut down on the need for operations and implants.
Dr Surender predicted it had great potential in a clinical setting.
The findings have been published in the leading journal 'Chem'.