Down in the mouth

Researchers in the School of Dentistry at The University of Manchester have created a unique way of identifying osteoporosis sufferers from ordinary dental X-rays.

Professor Keith Horner and Dr Hugh Devlin coordinated a three year, EU-funded collaboration with the Universities of Athens, Leuven, Amsterdam and Malmo, to develop the largely automated approach to detecting the disease. Their findings were published in the Elsevier journal Bone.

Wide-scale screening for osteoporosis is not currently viable, largely due to the cost and scarcity of specialist equipment and staff.

The team developed a software-based approach to detecting osteoporosis during routine dental X-rays, by automatically measuring the thickness of part of the patient’s lower jaw.

X-rays are used widely in the NHS to examine wisdom teeth, gum disease and during general check-ups, and their use is on the rise. In 2005 almost 6000 were taken on female patients aged 65 or over in a single month, and the number taken has increased by 181 per cent since 1981.

To harness these high usage rates, the team has drawn on ‘active shape modeling’ using technology developed by the University’s Division of Imaging Sciences. This will automatically detect jaw cortex widths of less than 3mm, a key indicator of osteoporosis, during the X-ray process, and alert the dentist.

The patients identified this way may not otherwise have been tested for osteoporosis, and would subsequently be referred for conclusive DXA (bone density) testing.