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Hard X-rays Show How Deep Bone Stress Goes

March 11, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Musculoskeletal Radiology
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High-energy hard X-rays have revealed some surprising consequences of repetitive stress on bones—including deep damage at a cellular level.

The new information could improve understanding of how repeated stress leads to bone fractures and how such fractures might be prevented. The study’s researchers are particularly interested in helping osteoporosis patients.

Cornell University researchers used samples of sheep bones cut into pieces 2 millimeters square. They gave some pieces a single episode of stress. Others received up to 20,000 cycles of “loading.” All samples then got an X-ray–negative lead-uranyl acetate stain that seeped into openings caused by damage to the bone tissue.

Marjolein van der Meulen, PhD, leader of the research, said:

We were surprised by how cell-based the staining was, as opposed to forming lots of new surfaces in the material.

In other words, the X-rays showed that the stress created cell-level damage but surprisingly few cracks.

Dr. van der Meulen is the Swanson professor of biomedical engineering in the Sibley School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at Cornell. She is senior author of an article about the research published last week in PLoS ONE. She was quoted in a Cornell news release.

The researchers used transmission X-ray microscopy at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. The synchroton’s powerful X-rays permitted resolution of 30 nanometers. Standard X-ray microcomputed tomography can manage resolution of 2 to 4 microns at best.

“In skeletal research,” Dr. van der Meulen said, “people have been trying to understand the role of damage. One of the things people have hypothesized is that damage is one of the stimuli that cells are sensing.”

Apparently, given the evidence of this new research, damage may start in the cells and then manifest itself as cracks in the tissue rather than the other way around. That knowledge should help guide further study. Dr. van der Meulen and her team are focusing on fractures related to osteoporosis—in particular why fractures usually occur in the forearm, spine, and hip, and why osteoporosis drugs known as bisphosphonates reduce the overall rate of hip fractures but can lead to other fractures in atypical places in the femur.

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