Greater understanding of the determinants of skeletal fragility is highly sought due to the great burden that bone affecting diseases and fractures have on economies, societies and health care systems. Being a complex, hierarchical composite of collagen type-I and non-stoichiometric substituted hydroxyapatite, bone derives toughness from its organic phase. In this study, we tested whether early observations that a strong correlation between bone collagen integrity measured by thermomechanical methods and work to fracture exist in a more general and heterogeneous sampling of the population. Neighboring uniform specimens from an established, highly characterized and previously published collection of human cortical bone samples (femur mid-shaft) were decalcified in EDTA. Fifty-four of the original 62 donors were included (26 male and 28 females; ages 21-101 years; aging, osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer). Following decalcification, bone collagen was tested using hydrothermal isometric tension (HIT) testing in order to measure the collagen's thermal stability (denaturation temperature, T) and network connectivity (maximum rate of isometric tension generation; Max.Slope). We used linear regression and general linear models (GLMs) with several explanatory variables to determine whether relationships between HIT parameters and generally accepted bone quality factors (e.g., cortical porosity, pentosidine content [pen], pyridinoline content [pyd]), age, and measures of fracture toughness (crack initiation fracture toughness, K, and total energy release/dissipation rate evaluated at the point of unstable fast fracture, J-int) were significant. Bone collagen connectivity (Max.Slope) correlated well with the measures of fracture toughness (R = 24-35%), and to a lesser degree with bound water fraction (BW; R = 7.9%) and pore water fraction (PW; R = 9.1%). Significant correlations with age, apparent volumetric bone mineral density (vBMD), and mature enzymatic [pyd] and non-enzymatic collagen crosslinks [pen] were not detected. GLMs found that Max.Slope and vBMD (or BW), with or without age as additional covariate, all significantly explained the variance in Kinit (adjusted-R = 36.7-49.0%). Also, the best-fit model for J-int (adjusted-R = 35.7%) included only age and Max.Slope as explanatory variables with Max.Slope contributing twice as much as age. Max.Slope and BW without age were also significant predictors of J-int (adjusted-R = 35.5%). In conclusion, bone collagen integrity as measured by thermomechanical methods is a key factor in cortical bone fracture toughness. This study further demonstrates that greater attention should be paid to degradation of the overall organic phase, rather than a specific biomarker (e.g. [pen]), when seeking to understand elevated fracture rates in aging and disease.
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