June 23, 2020

Bone imaging scholar receives prestigious Banting CIHR Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award will further Nikolas Knowles's research into preventing osteoarthritis after knee injuries

Dr. Nikolas Knowles, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the Cumming School of Medicine, has been awarded a prestigious Banting CIHR Postdoctoral Fellowship for a study aimed at detecting early bone changes with the goal of preventing osteoarthritis in people who suffer a common knee injury.

As many as 90 per cent of people who injure their anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), will eventually develop post-traumatic osteoarthritis (PTOA), a chronic and debilitating condition that restricts a person’s movement and severely affects their well-being.

“ACL injuries commonly occur in active athletes and people who are fairly young,” says Knowles. “You're hit with this injury and then in 10 to 20 years you get osteoarthritis and that really limits your quality of life through those productive years and beyond.”

High-resolution bone imaging only at UCalgary

Working in the Bone Imaging Lab in the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health with advisor and institute director Dr. Steven Boyd, PhD, Knowles’s research is monitoring and measuring young patients’ bone structure and strength shortly after they sustain an ACL injury, to better predict and ultimately prevent PTOA from developing.  

“Monitoring the bone changes after these injuries, we can look at medical images and develop computational models of these patients’ bones to better predict the risk of these patients developing osteoarthritis,” says Knowles. “These imaging methods and non-invasive bone strength measurements provide one method of helping clinicians in early detection of life-altering bone changes.”

In the longitudinal study, he is examining whether the initial reduction in bone quality after the ACL injury is directly related to a change in the strength of the underlying bone, and whether changes to bone structure and strength occur before any changes to the cartilage.

“The work we’re doing regarding post-ACL injury knee imaging is truly unique worldwide,” says Boyd. “Calgary is the first and only place in the world that has developed this high-resolution knee imaging and we aim to find ways to prevent the development of osteoarthritis.”

Right now, people with PTOA are diagnosed with the disorder only after they’ve started developing  symptoms — they’ve lost function in the knee joint or they are experiencing severe pain that prevents them from walking or taking part in other daily activities.

“If we can detect changes in the early stages, especially before they've even developed symptoms, then hopefully we can reverse any of these downstream negative events from occurring,” he says.

The goal is to capture patients shortly after injury so that preventive measures can be implemented prior to lost function and pain.

Knowles has been studying knees and ACL injuries since January when he moved to UCalgary from Western University, where he received his Biomedical Engineering PhD with a specialization in musculoskeletal health research.

“It’s very exciting that Nik got this award, and he’s a very deserving candidate with a bright future,” says Boyd. “This is a major stepping stone for him toward a career in academics.”

Receiving the two-year $70,000-a-year Banting CIHR Fellowship is a “game-changer for me,” says Knowles. “The Banting Fellowship is a very prestigious award and the world-class resources and expertise at the University of Calgary and Bone Imaging Laboratory provide invaluable experience as a researcher.”