Science and Technology Facilities Council
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New technology offers prospect of better bone disease diagnosis

Scientists and medics are set to test a unique technology which could help in the early diagnosis of conditions such as the painful brittle bone disease. The technology, which uses a novel technique devised by STFC's Central Laser Facility (CLF), is to be tested for the first time with NHS hospital patients.

The Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS) instrument, the first to be commercially available, is being delivered on Wednesday 3rd November to the Institute of Orthopaedics and Musculoskeletal Science, University College London (UCL) on the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (RNOH) site in Stanmore, Middlesex. The machine, which is being supplied by Cobalt Light Systems Ltd, will undergo testing to assess its usefulness with the long term aim of developing a specialist medical device to diagnose and detect early signs of diseases such as brittle bone disease and osteoarthritis.

The instrument will be used to take measurements on volunteering patients coming in for routine appointments for specific bone disorders that have already been diagnosed.  The measurements will test the way the technology works and the methods used for analysing the results. If successful, this could lead to preventive measures being taken at an early stage of disease development and the improved monitoring of the effects of treatments. At the moment brittle bone disease, a genetic bone condition, is often diagnosed after multiple painful fractures have already occurred to newborn babies.

The SORS technique was patented at STFC's Central Laser Facility (CLF) in Oxfordshire, and the instrument developed for bone scanning through collaboration with the CLF's spin out company, Cobalt Light Systems Ltd, and the Institute of Orthopedics and Musculoskeletal Science at University College London, one of the UK's specialist centres for bone disorders.

"This is a very important and exciting step in our research to use this science to develop a diagnostic technology that will allow simpler and more cost effective ways of diagnosing and treating people with painful and degenerative muscular skeletal diseases at a much earlier stage. Our aim is to enable treatment to be more effective in improving quality of life", said Professor Allen Goodship, Director of the Institute of Orthopedics and Musculoskeletal Science.

"The equipment uses the SORS technique noninvasively to safely determine the chemistry of bone tissue several millimeters beneath the skin", said RNOH Consultant Dr. Richard Keen. "This involves pressing a probe with a safe, low power laser beam gently against the skin in areas where bone is mainly covered by skin. Many bone diseases arise because of subtle changes in the bone protein chemistry but these are invisible to conventional techniques like X-rays. The wonderful thing about the SORS technique is its potential ability to detect these subtle molecular changes. If successfully developed, this type of technology may reduce the need for additional, often invasive tests such as biopsies which could revolutionise the way we currently do our work."

This new study will establish the feasibility of development of this type of disease diagnosis on patients and, if successful, will pave the way for future patient clinical trials to validate potential wider applications such as screening for osteoporosis and connective tissue disorders.

"We are very excited about the further development of this new technology on patients for the first time," said Cobalt Light Systems' Chief Executive, Dr Paul Loeffen. "Since scientists at the CLF made the breakthrough in discovering SORS a few years ago, the team at Cobalt Light Systems have worked hard to develop and refine this technology. Now we'll start to see how the technique can make a real difference to peoples' lives. We'll be very busy in the next few years learning what we can from these tests so we can perfect the technology for wider use."

The SORS technique has further potential for applications such as research into drug delivery, the probing of pharmaceutical products through coatings and packaging for quality control, security screening, and the subsurface probing of paints and food products.

Notes to editors

Images and captions

Image 1: Scientists working on the Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS) technique at the Science and Technology Facilities Council's Central Laser Facility in Oxfordshire.

Image 2: Aligning the Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS) instrument. The instrument will be used to assess the usefulness of the SORS technology with the aim of developing a specialist medical device to diagnose and detect early signs of bone diseases.


Bekky Stredwick
Press Office
STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
Tel: +44 (0)1235 445 777
Mob: +44 (0)7825 861 436

Further information

The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and led by Prof Allen Goodship, University College London. The development of the SORS technology for probing bones is performed in partnership with CLF's scientists within the Research Complex (link opens in a new window) at STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire.

The delivery of the first custom-built instrument by Cobalt Light Systems Ltd is for a four year programme which runs from March 2010. The value of the grant is in the order of £1.7M. The first year will see the delivery of first instrument for extending this research in a hospital environment; year two and three will increase in the scale of these studies to involve groups of 20-30 hospital patients with known skeletal conditions; year four will involve evaluation of the optimised technique and identification of opportunities for commercialisation and future clinical trials.

The study has three areas of focus:

  • optimisation of bone analysis (spectroscopy) through skin (both temporally and spatially-resolved techniques);
  • identification of major spectral features that are associated with bone chemistry in specific conditions; and
  • improving assessment of “bone quality” in comparison to the current standard DXA scans.

Brittle bone disease (Osteogenesis Imperfecta)

Brittle bone disease (link opens in a new window) is a genetic disorder usually diagnosed after a baby is born via DNA or other genetic tests. It is caused by an abnormality in the genes that produce collagen. Collagen is an important protein in the bone that keeps it strong. People with brittle bone disease have abnormal poor quality collagen so their bones are weak and they break easily. Source: NHS

The SORS instrument

The SORS instrument has two parts: the LiteThru engine which has an umbilical cord that ends in a probe. The probe mounts on the side of the machine and is pressed against the patient's skin in the areas requiring testing such as the ankle, elbow or knee. The height of the probe can be adjusted to fit the patient. The patient sits or stands for a few seconds or tens of seconds next to the machine while the procedure takes place. Sophisticated optics and laser technology are located inside the probe which uses a laser beam to cast a ring of near-infrared light on the area of study. The size of the ring can be varied which provides greater flexibility for diagnosis.

Raman Spectroscopy

The SORS method uses a technique called Ramen spectroscopy to suppress otherwise blinding interfering signals from skin, making it possible to see subtle chemical changes within all the components of bone through the skin. It does this using laser light.

When laser light of a specific colour is focused onto a material 99.999% of the light is scattered unchanged, however, a very very small fraction of the light changes colour and this colour change depends on the chemical make-up of the sample being hit by the laser light. Each chemical provides a unique change to the laser light similar to a fingerprint. Chemists capture the changed light and analyse it to identify the chemical composition and/or structure of the material(s) present.

Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital

The Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (link opens in a new window) (RNOH) is the largest orthopaedic hospital in the UK and regarded as a leader in the field of orthopaedics both in the UK and world-wide. It is a world-renowned specialist hospital for the diagnosis and treatment of complex neuro-musculoskeletal conditions.

University College London

University College London (link opens in a new window) (UCL) is among the world's top universities, as reflected in performance in a range of rankings and tables. More than 4,000 academic and research staff at UCL are dedicated to research and teaching of the highest standards.

Cobalt Light Systems Ltd

Cobalt Light Systems Ltd (link opens in a new window) is a UK company and sole provider of SORS products and technology. Cobalt develops instruments and applications for pharmaceutical process control, formulation development and quality control and also works with organisations to develop products in other markets such as medical, security and counterfeit detection.

Central Laser Facility

STFC's Central Laser Facility (link opens in a new window) (CLF) is a partnership between its staff and the large number of members of UK and European universities who use the specialised laser equipment provided to carry out a broad range of experiments in physics, chemistry and biology. CLF's SORS research labs are based in the new multi-million pound Research Complex on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (link opens in a new window) (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests more than £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training to tackle the challenges of the 21st Century.


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