Researchers from UNSW in Australia are using previously top-secret semiconductor technology to zoom in on aging joints at a cellular level.
What seemed completely outlandish only 2 decades ago is now so widely available that it’s child’s play. On Google Maps, my 7 year-old son has shown me, you can zoom in on our house “from outer space” to see the tree swing in our front yard.
Just as one might use Google Maps to zoom from Earth to street level, Professor Knothe Tate of the University of New South Whales (UNSW) uses Google algorithms to zoom in and out of human hip joints.
Researchers from UNSW in Australia are using previously top-secret semiconductor technology to zoom in on aging joints at a cellular level. Led by Professor Melissa Knothe Tate, who is the Paul Tainor Chair of Biomedical Engineering at UNSW, the team is using the technology to get a closer look at body parts affected by osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.
Google Maps for the Body
Knothe Tate describes it as a Google Maps for the body. Her team is also using microtome and MRI technology to study the ways that movement and weight bearing affects joints at a molecular level (i.e., blood, bone, lympatics, and muscle). This ability to view the living human body could change – or significantly enhance – our understanding of disease processes.
"For the first time we have the ability to go from the whole body down to how the cells are getting their nutrition and how this is all connected," says Knothe Tate in a press release. "This could open the door to as yet unknown new therapies and preventions."
Zeiss, a German optical and industrial measurement manufacturer, originally developed the imaging technology to scan silicon wafers for defects.
UNSW has forged partnerships with Cleveland Clinic, Brown and Stanford Universities, Google, and Zeiss in a truly international biomedical research project to gather and analyze data from studies of the human hip.
According to Knothe Tate: "These are terabyte-sized data sets so the Google maps algorithms are helping us take this tremendous amount of information and use it effectively. They're the traffic controllers, if you like." Knothe Tate continues:
Advanced research instrumentation provides a technological platform to answer the hardest, unanswered questions in science, opening up avenues for fundamental discoveries, the implications of which may be currently unfathomable yet which will ultimately pave the way to engineer better human health and quality of life as we age.
Little research has been conducted on the relationship between different tissue types (i.e., cartilage and bone). Researchers from Harvard University and Heidelberg in Germany are mapping neural pathways and connections in mouse brains, but the UNSW team is the first to use the technology in humans. This level of real-time research on human joints has been made possible with recent advances in microscopy and data analytics.
Cells in their natural environment
According to the press release, Knothe Tate first demonstrated that cellular communication breakdowns were involved in osteoarthritis in guinea pigs. By developing a deeper understanding of how molecules interact (or communicate, if you will), scientists might be able to develop new physical therapies, exercises, and preventive measures to protect against this painful – and common – disease.
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It tends to affect the joints, especially the knee, hip, and hands, of people as they age. Currently, no specific causes or cures are known, and treatment usually involves relieving symptoms of pain and stiffness, weight control, physical therapy, and sometimes joint replacement.
Knothe Tate says:
Together with human models, these data will enable us to understand how different health and disease conditions affect the joint over time, saving us thousands of experiments. Previous work has shown us that with osteoporosis, you get this incredible loss of connectivity in your cells, and this has huge implications for bone health.