June 13, 2018

State-of-the-art 3D bone scan study recruiting volunteers

It’s one of 400-plus research studies and clinical trials the public can find through UCalgary’s Participate in Research website
James Tommasson, participant in the study A Biomedical Engineering Approach to Investigating Bone Quality Across the Lifespan, has his wrist scanned by Danielle Whittier, grad student in Steven Boyd's Bone Imaging Lab.

James Tommasson has his wrist scanned by Danielle Whittier, grad student in Boyd's Bone Imaging Lab.

Adrian Shellard, for the University of Calgary

NASA astronauts are doing it. So are members of Canada’s national figure skating team. James Tomasson did it too — he’s a regular Calgarian who signed up to have his bones scanned as part of a University of Calgary research study on bone health.

The 43-year-old decided to volunteer for the study not long after he started cycle commuting. On his ride home one day last October, he slipped on some leaves. “I hurt my elbow so I was a little concerned,  not so much that I’d have permanent damage, but I just wanted to reassure myself that my bones are healthy and in good condition, and I wanted a better sense of my baseline fitness level.” 

For the study, A Biomedical Engineering Approach to Investigating Bone Quality Across the Lifespan, which is just one of more than 400 research studies and clinical trials actively recruiting participants through the UCalgary Participate in Research website, Tomasson’s ankle and wrist were scanned with an XtremeCT. The state-of-the-art imaging machine generates high-resolution 3D scans that reveal bone micro-structure and quality. UCalgary was first in the world to get the machine; there are now three in Canada. 

Get 3D scanned just like an astronaut

XtremeCT generates a more detailed look at bone architecture than a DXA scan does, which is the current standard bone density scanner, says Dr. Steven Boyd, PhD, the study’s principal investigator, a professor of biomedical engineering, and the director of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health at the Cumming School of Medicine, where the study is underway. That’s why Boyd is also using the machine in other studies to look at the bones of Canada’s national figure skating team as well as astronauts from the Canadian Space Agency and NASA — UCalgary also owns and operates an XtremeCT machine at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston. 

“The XtremeCT can see all the minute details up to a resolution of 61 micrometres — a higher resolution than the thickness of a human hair,” says Boyd. “It’s so new, it’s not a clinically accepted tool right now, but that is why we are doing the research.” 

The importance of studying bone health in the general population

“This study is about understanding what healthy bones look like,” says Boyd. “I reluctantly say this is a study about osteoporosis — because people go, ‘That’s not me, I don’t want to be in that study.’ When you say the word ‘osteoporosis,’ you think of an old person stooped over. But the reality is, bone health is something that starts when you are young and you try to maintain it when you are old.”

Anyone aged 18 to 95 who can remain still for about five minutes in the scanner is eligible to apply to participate. Boyd’s goal is to scan 1,000 people who collectively represent the general Calgary population. So far, 650 people have been scanned. 

“It’s a study across the entire lifespan, to see how people’s bone structure differs in terms of age and gender, but right now we are currently focused on scanning men and women aged 25 to 55, especially males,” says Boyd, who has already gathered enough data on participants aged 55 and over. “Men aren’t typically as interested in their bone density as women are, and it’s a false assumption that they are less prone to having a fracture.”

Ultimately, Boyd will create a database to act as a control group for other studies, for example to compare the public to people with hip fractures, and also just to understand what normal bones looks like. “If you don’t know what normal is, you can’t make a comparison,” he says. 

The added benefits of getting scanned

Tomasson not only volunteered for the study to find out the state of his bone health, he also convinced his parents, both in their 70s, to sign up as well. “I hear daily about their aches and pains,” he says. “It was really cool to get my parents involved — we are all interested in our health, but we’re also big advocates of contributing to the betterment of society. Participating in this study was a way we could all help.”

Tomasson says his mother, especially, was quite surprised by her scan results. “My mom has arthritis in her hands and shoulders. She is pretty health conscious, so she was happy with the results. It was good peace of mind for her to know the state of her bones,” he says.

As a bonus, Tomasson also gained some additional personal insight — and motivation — from the study. For comparison purposes, study participants are scanned using the XtremeCT and also the DXA scanner, which, in addition to determining bone density, also generates the most accurate measurement for body composition — how much of body weight is lean muscle, bone and fat. 

“I’m a pretty slender guy,” says Tomasson, who is a program and event co-ordinator at the McCaig Institute (but does not work on any of the bone studies). “I follow bodybuilding and online fitness forums, so I was guessing my body-fat percentage would be in the high teens. But the test showed it is actually 25 per cent, which blew my mind. So the test has given me a good goal, to work on reducing that number.” 

And it was extra incentive to get Tomasson back to cycle commuting this summer.

Why researchers need to connect with the public

In any study or clinical trial, recruitment is probably the hardest part, says Boyd. “People underestimate how difficult recruitment is.” That’s why Boyd is hopeful that UCalgary’s Participate in Research website can be a useful tool to connect researchers with the general public, and help raise awareness about the importance of recruiting a wide variety of study participants. 

And when it comes to encouraging the public to volunteer to get their bones scanned, Boyd likes to remind people that not only is it pain-free and takes just takes a bit of your time, but it’s pretty cool too: “You are getting scanned just the same way you would if you were a NASA or Canadian Space Agency astronaut,” he says. 

This Participate in Research story is the third in a three-part series. We profile the participants of three very different studies to show how and why the general public can participate in 400-plus diverse research studies and clinical trials.