New 3D imaging technology better visualises microscopic damage causing lower back pain

January 7, 2022
New 3D imaging technology better visualises microscopic damage causing lower back pain

The minute damage sustained by the soft and protective tissues along the spine, including the cartilage and jelly-like intervertebral discs, is often overlooked during assessment with existing medical technologies, such as X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This damage can degrade and unfurl the collagen proteins that cushion the vertebrae and gives these tissues their bounce and flexibility, causing chronic back pain.

Now, researchers from the American Chemical Society (ACS) report on a new molecular probe tool that uses collagen hybridising peptides (CHPs) labelled with fluorescent tags to identify and isolate collagen destruction in the body. The probe has so far been used to study soft tissue destruction in animal spines and in some people that had undergone spinal surgeries.

In experiments, ACS researchers Yang Li, Kuibo Zhang, Hong Shan, and colleagues modified CHP to be more stable in the body before attaching a fluorescent dye to it. This technique produced precise 3D maps, which revealed denatured collagen, in healthy mice and rats injected with the fluorescent dye-labeled CHP and imaged with near-infrared fluorescence (NIRF).

In addition, the fluorescence intensity of the dye rose substantially as the level of intervertebral disc degeneration increased in people with previous spinal surgeries.

Both the NIRF images and 3D maps generated in this way highlighted collagen deterioration in animal models of spinal injury before structural changes were visible in tissues on MRI scans; even healthy animals can have a modest degree of deteriorated collagen around load-bearing joints, especially in the lower back, according to the researchers.

Based on these results, the researchers say that their new probing technique could be developed in clinical studies for earlier diagnosis and targeted therapeutic treatments for patients with back pain.

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