"Right now, pain is usually the first indication that cancer is affecting bones. If we could detect it earlier by an analysis of urine or blood in high-risk patients, it could significantly improve their care," Fonseca said.
The new technique makes use of a fact well known to Earth scientists, but seldom used in biomedicine: Different isotopes of a chemical element can react at slightly different rates. When bones form, the lighter isotopes of calcium enter bone a little faster than the heavier isotopes. That difference, called "isotope fractionation," is the key.
"Instead of isotopes of calcium, think about jelly beans," explained Jennifer Morgan, lead author of the study. "We all have our favorite. Imagine a huge pile of jelly beans with equal amounts of six different kinds. You get to make your own personal pile, picking out the ones you want. Maybe you pick two black ones for every one of another color because you really like licorice. It's easy to see that your pile will wind up with more black jelly beans than any other color. Therefore, the ratio of black to red or black to green will be higher in your pile than in the big one. That's similar to what happens with calcium isotopes when bones form. Bone favors lighter calcium isotopes and picks them over the heavier ones."
Other factors, especially bone destruction, also come into play, making the human body more complicated than the jelly bean analogy. But 15 years ago, corresponding author Joseph Skulan, now an adjunct professor at ASU, combined all the factors into a mathematical model that predicted that calcium isotope ratios in blood and urine should be extremely sensitive to bone mineral balance.
"Bone is continuously being formed and destroyed," Skulan explained. "In healthy, active humans, these processes are in balance. But if a disease throws the balance off t
|Contact: Carol Hughes|
Arizona State University