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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 July, 2005, 23:35 GMT 00:35 UK
Fingernail test for bone disease
How the fingernail tester would look
A laser would scan the middle fingernail
Scientists have devised a way of testing for the bone disease osteoporosis simply by scanning a patient's fingernail.

Both fingernails and bones contain a crucial bonding substance which helps give them strength.

The team, including University of Limerick experts, say low levels in the fingernail indicate low levels in bone.

Their test, they say, offers a cheap and accessible way of assessing if someone needs to go for further checks.

The idea has been nominated for the Medical Futures - Innovation Awards, due to be announced later this year.

Floppy nails

Osteoporosis is a weakening of the bones that can lead to breaks which are difficult to heal.

This test could be a low cost and simple way of assessing someone's risk and if they need to go for further checks
Mark Towler

It affects one in three women and one in 12 men and is responsible for 200,000 broken bones per year in the UK - and 40 deaths a day.

The first clue the fingernail could play a role in diagnosing the disease came when a doctor noticed his osteoporosis patients had floppy nails.

Mark Towler, a lecturer in materials at the University of Limerick was asked to look at the properties of nail and bone.

Dr Towler checked the nails and bones in 10 people with osteoporosis and 10 without.

He found that levels of disulphide bond - needed to bind one protein molecule to another - were lower in people with osteoporosis.

In nails, the disulphide bond is needed to bind keratin - which gives them strength.

For bones, the protein collagen needs disulphide bonds to stick together.


The researchers went on to look at another 200 people, who were also given bone scans - the conventional way of assessing if someone has a risk of osteoporosis.

Everyone shown by the scans to have osteoporosis was also found to have low levels of disulphide bond.

Dr Towler said: "People are usually referred to hospital for bone scans if their doctors feel they have risk factors, such as being post menopausal, or if they smoke.

"This test could be low cost and simple way of assessing someone's risk and if they need to go for further checks.

"It could be done in a GP surgery, or someone could send off a nail for testing."

The researchers are now seeking funding to carry on their research so they can evaluate what level of disulphide bond indicates that someone is at risk of osteoporosis, or that they already have the disease.

A spokeswoman for the National Osteoporosis Society said it was an interesting area of research.

She added: "Obviously, there's still quite a lot of work to do, to work out the link between nail and bone health.

"There's interesting work that we're hearing about now, aimed at assessing risk.

"Anything that can help doctors find an easy way of doing that is always welcome."

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