Reporter 456, 9 October 2000

Super ’scope offers hope on brittle bone disease

In an average year, 60,000 ageing people suffer hip fractures in the UK. One woman in four will develop the brittle-bone condition, osteoporosis, in later life.

A collaboration involving two University departments – Physics and Astronomy and the Dental Institute – may not be the most obvious source of hope for people facing these particular threats.

Eyes on the prize: physicists Dr Alastair Smith and Professor David Batchelder with oral biologists Professor Jen Kirkham and Professor Colin Robinson, partners in the £1.3m project

But a project which has secured £1.3m in funding from the Government’s Link programme for analytical biotechnology should reveal a great deal about how such ailments come about.

Work has already begun, with industry partners Renishaw, British Biotechnology and Duramed and biochemists at Sheffield University, to develop extremely high-powered instrumentation capable of mapping the interaction of biomolecules with skeletal surfaces.

The researchers, led at Leeds by physicist Dr Alastair Smith and Professor Colin Robinson of the oral biology division, are building an ultra-high resolution optical microscope which will be about a hundred times as powerful as a normal laboratory binocular microscope.

The interactions of proteins at mineral and cell surfaces are strongly implicated in the control of conditions like osteoporosis, dental caries, and the calcification of softer tissues like heart valves or corneas. The size of the proteins and other objects of interest are well below the limit of a normal optical microscope and although an electron microscope can capture two-dimensional images on the scale required, it is unable to provide detailed chemical information.

The Link grant is towards the development of an instrument which will be able not only to image objects on this scale but even to track chemical and biological activity on their surfaces using laser spectroscopy.

"Lens-based optical systems can only be used to view things that are bigger than about half the wavelength of the light that is being used to view them," said Dr Smith. "The scanning near-field optical microscope that we are working on is not based on refractive lenses, which means it can achieve extraordinary resolution below this limit."

The technology will enable researchers to study chemistry and interactions at surfaces in unprecedented detail – and when the underlying molecular mechanisms of osteoporosis and similar pathologies can be observed so closely, whole new treatment strategies can be explored.

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