Chemistry and Biophysics Prof. Ayyalusamy Ramamoorthy is an avid fan of The Magic School Bus, much like his children.

Inspired by the science series’ exploration of inaccessible environments, Ramamoorthy led his research team to analyze and probe the contents of bone.

Published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society last month, Ramamoorthy’s study relied on solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance imaging — the technology that led to the development and widespread use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — to look closely at a sectioned piece of bovine bone and observe the results of removing water molecules from the makeup of the bone.

Though solid-state NMR is not widely used in hospitals and other clinical settings, Ramamoorthy’s study does have clinical implications. Given that bone tissue undergoes water loss with age, Ramamoorthy said developing an understanding of the atomic details in bone using solid-state NMR could lead to treatment of conditions such as osteoporosis.

NMR imaging, Ramamoorthy said, highlights key structural features of molecules, using the magnetic properties of the atoms that make them up.

“We routinely use (NMR spectroscopy) for resolving atomic level structures of biological molecules,” he said. “We were able to see what happens to the collagen structure and its motion when water molecules are removed from the bone matrix.”

Another recent study conducted by researchers at the University and the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit has already shown that nanoscale changes to the collagen matrix may be a marker of bone health.

Ramamoorthy said the dehydration process is associated with bone degradation, adding that water is essential to biological components and bone is no exception.

“If you put yourself in the driver’s seat of The Magic School Bus as the teacher and you’re taking students along for the ride, you should expect to see these kinds of interactions in the bone world,” Ramamoorthy said.

Developed from NMR studies, MRI is already a widely used clinical tool to visualize internal soft tissue. Solid-state NMR, — the process Ramamoorthy used for his study — is proving to be a more difficult technique to implement clinically, he said.

Traditional NMR spectroscopy requires a sample to be dissolved in solution so molecules are oriented randomly when analyzed. Because intact bone cannot be dissolved, the sample was spun at a “magic angle” to make analysis possible.

Ramamoorthy said the “magic angle” technique is difficult to apply in a clinical setting.

“We can’t spin intact bone in a real patient, so that’s an obvious disadvantage,” he said.

However, Ramamoorthy said the use of rapid pulses may be a feasible clinical alternative to spinning bone — both of which can facilitate resolution of the tissue on the atomic scale.

He added that overcoming these preliminary challenges should allow clinicians to not only get a picture of a patient’s bone health but also any calcium deposits in artery plaque and the bone-cartilage interface of joints, which could, among other things, lead to early detection of associated medical conditions.

“Solid state NMR imaging is already in the development process but not routinely applied,” Ramamoorthy said. “It’s not in the practice of treating patients or diagnosing them, but it will soon be put into use in the coming years.”

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