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Experiments carried out at Diamond using high energy intense beams of X-rays examined bone flexibility at the nanoscale. This allowed scientists to assess how collagen and minerals within bone flex and then break apart under load – in the nanostructure of hip bone samples.
The report’s findings suggest that doctors should look not only at bone density, but also bone flexibility, when deciding how to prevent bone breakages.
New research undertaken at Diamond's Small Angle X-ray Scattering beamline (I22) has highlighted a gap in preventative treatment in patients prone to bone fractures. The study, published in Scientific Reports and led by Imperial College London, found that flexibility as well as density in the bone nanostructure is an important factor in assessing how likely someone is to suffer fractures.
Scientists at Diamond used high energy intense beams of X-rays to examine bone flexibility at the nanoscale. They were then able to assess how the collagen and minerals within bone flex and then break apart under load – in the nanostructure of hip bone samples.
They compared the behavior of the bone tissue samples under load between three groups of donors:
those who had not suffered a hip fracture, or any other fracture;
those without a bisphosphonate treatment history who had suffered a fractured hip;
and those with a bisphosphonate treatment history who had suffered a fractured hip.
The team found that donors without fractures were more likely to have flexible collagen and mineral nanostructure than those with who had suffered fractures.
Irrespective of bisphosphonate treatment – usually prescribed for osteoporosis - the collagen and minerals were less flexible under load in patients with fractures, meaning the mineral broke away from the collagen at much lower forces.
Researchers concluded that bones may have fractured because the tissue was too inflexible and could not deform to absorb energy during a bump or fall – highlighting the importance of flexibility in the collagen and minerals of bone.
Therefore, flexibility at the nanoscale could be important in predicting future bone fractures and a target for new treatments. This could then inform future preventative treatment of bone fractures.
Nick Terrill, Principal Beamline Scientist on I22, said:
This research really capitalised on the full capabilities of the Small Angle X-ray Scattering Beamline I22 at Diamond. Utilising the full brightness of the beam, 10 billion times brighter than the sun, in a spot 10 times smaller than a human hair, we were able to explore the bone collagen-mineral matrix as it broke in real time, giving new insights into how the structure deforms under these conditions.
Clinicians currently use dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scans, which look at how porous or dense bones are, to assess the likelihood of fractures. However, some people whose bones seem healthy on DEXA scans are still more likely to suffer fractures compared to others, which is why the researchers looked to the building blocks of bone: stiff minerals surrounding flexible collagen fibrils, which are responsible for our bones’ resilience against fracture during trips and falls.
“Nanoscale mechanisms in age‑related hip‑fractures” by Shaocheng Ma, En Lin Goh, Tabitha Tay, Crispin C. Wiles, Oliver Boughton, John H. Churchwell, Yong Wu, Angelo Karunaratne, Rajarshi Bhattacharya, Nick Terrill, Justin P. Cobb, Ulrich Hansen, & Richard L. Abel, published 26 August 2020 in Scientific Reports.
Read the full publication on the Nature website.
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