Illuminating bones

Illuminating bones

Inspiring research
April 17, 2012
A 3-D rendering of human bone helps researchers
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A 3-D rendering of human bone helps researchers better understand the interconnectivity of bloodvessel canals and the cellular spaces surrounding them.
Image data (collected at the Advanced Photon Source) courtesy of David Thomas and John Clement, University of Melbourne

David Cooper wants to know more about your bones. Specifically, the assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology at the University of Saskatchewan is trying to answer a chicken-and-egg question about osteoporosis: do changes in the density of cells within bones cause the disease, or does the disease cause the changes in cell density?

“Sorting that out will help us develop more effective strategies for either preventing osteoporosis or treating it,” says Cooper, an expert in the study of bone. Given Canada’s aging population, this research is an increasingly important priority for the health-care system, since osteoporosis, which causes a decline in bone mass, is associated with aging.

But until Cooper and his colleagues had the access to what he jokingly refers to as “the big bright light bulb” known as Canadian Light Source (CLS), they couldn’t answer these complex questions.

The CLS is Canada’s first synchrotron — a powerful source of brilliant light produced by giant magnets and radio-frequency waves that accelerates electrons to almost the speed of light. Scientists like Cooper use it to view the microstructure of matter — in this case, the cellular pores within bone.

“The synchrotron allows us much higher-magnification imaging than we could achieve without it,’’ explains Cooper. “Prior to the CLS, anyone who was in synchrotron science in Canada had to leave the country to collect the data.”

Using the synchrotron, Cooper can scan bones down to 1/1,000 millimetre compared with the 1/4 millimetre allowed by an ordinary hospital CT scan. As a result, his team is charting the changes bones experience over time, measuring whether the total number of bone cells is increasing or decreasing or whether the shape and size of those cells change with the disease. If researchers can determine when osteoporosis induces such changes, doctors may be able to treat the disease earlier, preventing the bone fractures that can often immobilize people and rob them of their independence.

Cooper is also working with colleagues to improve medical research using a new technology called diffraction-enhanced imaging, which reduces the dose of radiation while providing more information than a conventional X-ray. It has promise to one day move from experimentation on the synchrotron to application in hospitals.

“These types of techniques began in the synchrotron,” says Cooper. “We’re at the cutting edge of imaging technology.”