Up Close: Studying bone density to help cancer survivors

Megan Oest, PhD, places a cylinder containing tiny pieces of bone into a CT scanner. Using software that takes precise measurements of the CT images, Oest creates 3-D images and identifies subtle changes in bone caused by radiation. (photo by William Mueller)

Megan Oest, PhD, places a cylinder containing tiny pieces of bone into a CT scanner. Using software that takes precise measurements of the CT images, Oest creates 3-D images and identifies subtle changes in bone caused by radiation. (photo by William Mueller)

Timothy Damron, MD, and Kenneth Mann, PhD, are studying bone fracture risk in cancer patients after radiation treatment. While radiation therapy is an important and effective treatment for many cancers, bone exposed to radiation becomes brittle and has an increased risk of fragility fracture. Unlike traumatic fractures, fragility fractures occur during normal physical activities and are difficult to predict in patients.

The researchers want to develop ways to prevent and treat these fragility fractures in cancer survivors.

Bone density is not decreased after radiation therapy. Rather, changes in the bone material itself (for example, protein crosslinking, collagen and mineral organization) — as well as the activity of cells that make, maintain and renew bone — contribute to the brittleness of bone after radiation therapy.  

Working as engineers and biologists, Damron and Mann are using translational models to understand how bone is altered by radiation therapy and test potential treatments. Their goal is to prevent post-radiotherapy bone fractures and thereby improve quality of life for cancer survivors.

Cancer Care magazine spring 2019 coverThis article appears in the spring 2019 issue of Cancer Care magazine.

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