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Revolutionary 3D bone-scanning technique could take X-rays to the next level

X-rays have been used for years to help diagnose injuries to our bones, but as useful and ubiquitous as they are, they’re not without their faults.

“Something that can be very challenging for doctors is that while it is easy to determine the density of bones, it’s very difficult to determine the quality of bones,” Thorfinnur Gunnlaugsson, a professor at the School of Chemistry at Trinity College, Dublin, told Digital Trends. “Today’s current imaging technology is just not sensitive enough to go down to the micrometer scale.”

Together with researchers from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Gunnlaugsson and his team have come up with a solution, however. They’ve developed a new 3D-scanning technique for bones that not only has the benefit of not exposing patients to potentially harmful X-ray radiation, but also provides high-quality 3D images from which diagnoses can be made.

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The process involves attaching safe luminescent compounds to tiny gold structures, which are then pumped into a patient’s blood before they undergo a scan. These “nanoagents” highlight microcracks formed in the bones, which in turn allows researchers to create 3D images of the damaged body parts. While these microcracks are usually repaired by the body’s natural healing abilities, they pose a particular problem when they develop faster than the body’s natural repair rate. This results in a weakening of the bone and the possibility of stress or fragility fractures.

“From a doctor’s point of view, [our work has the potential to be] really helpful,” Gunnlaugsson said. “This could be useful in early diagnosis, enhancing well being, and — in the long term — preventing expensive treatment like surgery if you can catch things early on.”

While we’re still a way away from this new 3D-scanning technology being deployed in hospitals, Gunnlaugsson noted that it could be a very useful tool in the arsenal of physicians. “I think this would be an add-on, rather than a replacement for X-rays — in the same way that we still use X-rays, even though MRI has become very popular,” he said. “Ultimately, the more imaging platforms we have available to us, the more accurate diagnosis will be.”