Chemists at Trinity College Dublin created a 3D bone-scanning technique that does not expose patients to radiation.

The team attached a luminescent tag to tiny, gold structures called nanoagents. The particles seek out micro-cracks in bones and adhere to the calcium-rich surface. Using magnetic resonance imaging, the luminescent molecules light up and produce a 3D, high-resolution image of the bone.

The study appeared in the journal Chem, according to the university. The project is a collaboration between Trinity College Dublin and Ireland’s Royal College of Surgeons.

Micro-cracks in bones can occur from everyday activity. In athletes, these cracks accumulate faster than the body can naturally repair them, which can cause stress fractures. The same is true for elderly people with osteoporosis, because the body’s natural repair system is not as effective.

The researchers argue that their process is unique because unlike traditional X-rays, their images can tell doctors about the quality of the bone. Their process also doesn’t require the use of radiation, which has been associated with an increased risk of cancer.

“By using our new nanoagent to label microcracks and detecting them with magnetic resonance imaging, we hope to measure both bone quantity and quality and identify those at greatest risk of fracture and institute appropriate therapy,” Dr. Clive Lee, a professor of anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, said in prepared remarks.

“This work is the outcome of many years of successful collaboration between chemists from Trinity and medical and engineering experts from RCSI. We have demonstrated that we can achieve a 3-dimensional map of bone damage, showing the so-called microcracks, using non-invasive luminescence imaging,” added principal investigator Thorri Gunnlaugsson. “The nanoagent we have developed allows us to visualize the nature and the extent of the damage in a manner that wasn’t previously possible. This is a major step forward in our endeavor to develop targeted contrast agents for bone diagnostics for use in clinical applications.”