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Researchers develop 'osteoarthritis scanner'
Recognising joint deterioration before the pain hits

Ulm University

Osteoarthritis is a widespread disease. Numerous women and men suffer from the painful deterioration of joints, particularly in their later years of life. Early diagnosis helps keep the breakdown of cartilage at bay and preserve the affected joint as long as possible. Researchers around Professor Boris Mizaikoff, Director of the Institute of Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry in Ulm, are working on a solution: A sensor in the mid-infrared range, to be used during surgery, is hoped to diagnose cartilage changes before the onset of osteoarthritis. 13 European research institutions and businesses from six countries contribute their knowledge to this endeavour under the coordination of the Finnish University of Oulu. Project MIRACLE is funded with over 6.1 million euros as part of the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation Horizon 2020.

Cold-start pain, morning stiffness and reduced weight-bearing capability: osteoarthritis drastically dampens the life quality of the mostly older patients. The diagnosis via imaging or arthroscopy, however, often only occurs after the protecting cartilage is already heavily reduced and the joint surfaces already grind against another.
Yet, the progression of the disease and the consequential joint replacement could be delayed, if the deterioration of the cartilage was recognised and treated in an early stage. Scientists around Professor Boris Mizaikoff are currently developing the prototype of an arthroscopic infrared sensor that detects pathological cartilage changes before a painful osteoarthritis develops. The novel sensor detects molecular changes during a minimally invasive arthroscopy and could be a significant asset to patient care and research: 'In addition to improved immediate diagnostics, this measuring technology also helps assess the success of novel therapies,' explains Professor Mizaikoff. The scientists also hope to gain a better understanding of the pathogenesis and course of the disease. The overarching goal of project MIRACLE is a personalised patient care and thus reduced – also financially – burden on the health care system, as joint degeneration is becoming more and more prevalent in our aging society.

The miniaturisation of the components is a technical challenge

The researchers from Ulm focus their expertise mainly on the area of infrared spectroscopy and the miniaturisation of molecular-specific sensor technologies. 'The new sensor is based on a series of tuneable quantum cascade lasers, an integrated beam combiner, infrared light conductor fibres as well as a sensor element for spectroscopy and imaging in the mid-infrared range. It is a challenge to integrate all these components into a highly compact format that enables the actual application during the arthroscopic procedure,' elaborates Professor Mizaikoff. A miniaturised prototype has already made a strong impression in the lead-up to the project: It not only facilitated the detection and classification of pathological changes in meniscus samples, but also atherosclerotic plaque on the inner walls of blood vessels.

MIRACLE is expected to be easy to use for the surgeon during an arthroscopy and also provide accurate results. The sensor is thus hoped to be ready for the market as soon as possible. 'This is one important reason why so many partners from the industry are part of the MIRACLE team, so that a market-ready prototype can be presented by the end of the project,' emphasises Mizaikoff.           

The undertaking has convinced the experts from the European Commission as well: They assigned the project application the highest possible score. The EU project MIRACLE ('Mid-infrared arthroscopy innovative imaging system for real-time clinical in-depth examination and diagnosis of degenerative joint diseases') receives close to 6,134,000 euros over an initial period of 42 months. A portion of 842,500 euros is allocated to the researchers in Ulm.

Prof. Boris Mizaikoff (Foto: privat)
Prof. Boris Mizaikoff is the Director of the Institute of Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry at Ulm University
Foto: Shutterstock