FIRST PERSON | Arizona researchers have developed a test that could result in much earlier and safer bone-loss detection. Patients with or at risk for osteoporosis and those suffering from some advanced types of cancer stand to profit from the technique.
NASA funded the research; according to Arizona State University (ASU), scientists at the school, partnering with NASA staff, developed a technique based in earth science. Their method detects bone loss by analyzing calcium isotopes in urine.
Osteoporosis is a disorder that causes an individual's bones to weaken and become brittle. Fractures related to the condition most frequently occur in the hip, wrist, or spine, says the Mayo Clinic. While the disorder affects both men and women, white and Asian women face the greatest risk, particularly if they're post-menopausal. The usual test to measure bone density is a radiographic study known as dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, also called a DEXA or DXA scan.
The ASU technique carefully examines isotopes of the element calcium, which naturally occurs in urine. This means patients don't have to ingest any artificial tracers or face exposure to radiation. It also means that bone loss can be detected much sooner than a DEXA scan can spot it.
The study followed healthy subjects confined to bed rest for 30 days at a University of Texas research center in Galveston. When individuals lie down, their weight-bearing bones start to deteriorate. The new technique detected bone loss after only one week of bed rest. Researchers published their conclusions in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
As a patient with Crohn's disease who has taken corticosteroids several times for intervals of more than two years, I first became concerned about developing osteoporosis in my 30s. I had already been diagnosed with cataracts, also linked to steroids. By the time I had my first DEXA scan in my 40s, I was complaining of various back pains and other problems.
The results of the first scan showed I already had a significant degree of osteopenia. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, this disorder indicates low bone density not so severe as to be osteoporosis. A DEXA scan the following year showed significant additional loss of density. I'm currently two inches shorter than I was two decades ago.
With each scan, I move closer to osteoporosis despite taking calcium and vitamin D in amounts prescribed by my doctor. This is a major concern, since many Crohn's patients aren't able to tolerate the current medications available to treat osteoporosis.
I have to wonder if my bones would be a lot stronger had I discovered the problem much earlier. Had the new urine test to detect bone loss been available, I certainly would have wanted it.
Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online articles. She specializes in health and medical topics and has a special interest in diseases and other conditions that affect quality of life.
- Disease & Medical Conditions
- Arizona State University