Doctors may one day use toenail clippings to diagnose osteoporosis

Dual-emission X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scans are currently the gold standard for osteoporosis detection, but new bone health exams are developed each year, like a toenail clipping-based test being created by an Irish medical technology firm.

Called Crescent Diagnostics, the company - a subsidiary of the University of Limerick (U of L) in Ireland - recently secured $2.2 million in funding to develop the method, which is called the Bone Quality Test (BQT).

The technology is based on work done by Dr. Mark Towler, a professor of biomedical materials engineering science at New York's Alfred University. He helped found Crescent after conducting osteoporosis research at the U of L.

Towler said that, unlike traditional DXA scans, which analyze bone density in the hips, wrists, thighs or vertebrae, the BQT will use low-powered lasers to analyze toenail samples for their mineral content.

"A laser beam, similar to the one used to power a CD player, is aimed at a toenail clipping from a subject and the information recorded from this laser evaluates the presence of certain proteins in the nail clipping. The presence and extent of these proteins gives a measure of the quality of the protein phase of the subject’s bones," Towler explained.

He added that the toenail-based test is intended to be a cheaper, less invasive alternative to traditional bone densitometry scans, which use X-rays or ultrasonography.

Why are bone density scans done in the first place? According to the Mayo Clinic, tests like the DXA can detect the presence of osteoporosis in people who have suffered fractures, or predict the risk of the disease in seemingly healthy individuals.

Today, more Americans are getting tested for bone loss than ever before. In the previous decade, doctor's office visits for osteoporosis increased from 1.3 to 6.3 million per year, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation.