PEOPLE who suffer from bone diseases such as osteoporosis may be helped by a revolutionary new laser technology which offers earlier detection than conventional X-rays and with greater accuracy.

Osteoporosis is a major illness in the Western world, affecting an estimated one in three women aged 50 or above.

The cutting-edge laser technology has been developed at the Science & Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Central Laser Facility in Harwell with the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (RNOH) and University College London.

Prof Pavel Matousek, a senior fellow at the STFC, said the new technique, which is based on Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy, involved shining a laser through the skin to determine the bone’s chemistry. “The laser is not dissimilar to a laser pointer,” he said.

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“We are trying to suppress the light on the surface to see what is beneath. The surface dazzles you by its own light.”

The light coming back changes colour and is linked to the chemical make-up of the object that the laser was pointed at (in this case the bone), with the refracted light acting as a kind of “fingerprint”, he said.

Clinical trials on a bone sample taken from a 26-year-old woman at the RNOH in Stanmore, London, about six months ago proved that the technique worked in detecting Osteogenesis Imperfecta, commonly known as brittle bone disease, he said.

The results of that trial were announced in a peer-reviewed scientific article published in online journal BoneKEy in late November.

The next step in the research was to verify that the technique would also work for osteoporosis (weak or fragile bones) and osteoarthritis (stiff joints), he said.

The laser technique has a number of advantages.

Earlier detection allows for earlier treatment or a change of lifestyle to compensate for a bone disease.

Also, X-rays were only 60 per cent to 70 per cent accurate in determining osteoporotic fractures, because X-rays can only gauge a bone’s mineral elements, whereas the laser technique was more accurate because it determined both the bone’s mineral and protein make-up, he added.

Anne Ambler, secretary of the National Osteoporosis Society Oxford and District Support Group, welcomed the new laser technique.

“The quicker it [osteoporosis] can be diagnosed the better. This sounds very good,” she said.

Osteoporosis was “a disease that many people have, and don’t know they have, until they have broken a bone”, she added.

Sue Russell, an osteoporosis sufferer from Thame, said: “If you know you’re at risk, you can do something about it.”

Mrs Russell did not discover she had the disease until she broke her wrist.

Prof Matousek said further research on the laser technology was being carried out on about 100 patients with bone diseases.

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