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Sound Bones

A new device could simplify and improve the diagnosis of osteoporosis, allowing doctors to detect and treat this crippling disease earlier. About 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, which leads to bone fragility. But if recognized early enough, the deterioration caused by the disease can be halted for many patients, helping to prevent fractures. Existing diagnostic techniques only allow doctors to measure bone density, which correlates imperfectly with the actual strength of the bone. Created by a team of bioengineers at Rice University, the new test determines the strength and structural integrity of bone directly. Placed against the skin, the OsteoSonic device emits a wide range of acoustic frequencies and then analyzes the waves reflected back from the bone. Specific acoustic responses are characteristic of different properties of bone, indicating its strength or the presence of fractures. Changes in bone integrity “can be picked up earlier,” says Michael Liebschner, who led the Rice team. The new test should also be far cheaper than existing scans, which cost hundreds of dollars and must be done in specialized labs. “A family physician could monitor a patient in his office, every other month,” Liebschner adds. Liebschner has begun tests of the device with several hospitals and clinics in the Texas Medical Center. He and his team are forming a company to commercialize it; he hopes to have regulatory approval within three to five years.

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