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Tuesday, 25 January, 2000, 18:44 GMT
Gallstones scanned as they form
Gallstones often require painful surgery
A hi-tech microscope can spot developing gallstones before they start to cause health problems, claim experts.

The technique, pioneered at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, aims to help doctors understand more about how gallstones form - and hopefully lead to better treatments.

Gallstones are formed when particles of cholesterol join together in the gallbladder to form pea-sized or bigger solid lumps.

Although some people can be helped simply with a change of diet, in many cases surgery is required to remove the stone.

Dr Yeshayahu Talmon from the institute said: "Our research aims to answer why and how gallstones form so that physicians can direct their efforts towards inhibiting the process at the onset through medication and dietary changes."

Until now, most gallstone research has used light-microscopy which can see objects as small as one millionth of a metre.

The more advanced cryo-transmission electron microscopy can see details one thousand times smaller.

"The magnifying power is comparable to a telescope that would enable you to observe an ant from a satellite 800 miles above earth," said Dr Talmon.

The team were able to see the gallstone micro-structures from the moment of their creation through their subsequent growth into cholesterol crystals.

People who have high cholesterol levels are most at risk from gallstones, as the excess is more likely to come out of its dissolved state in the bile and form crystals.

Symptoms of gallstones range from severe and intermittent pain in the abdomen to complications which threaten life.

It is estimated that up to 5% of all medical costs in the US are gallstone-related.

While the breakthrough may aid research into the causes of, and treatments for, gallstones, it is unlikely at the moment to be used to spot those most at risk of developing gallstones.

See also:

09 Sep 99 | Health
Exercise reduces gallstone risk
08 Jun 99 | Health
Coffee may prevent gallstones
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