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Particle physicists have developed a medical imaging device that produces full-colour, 3D images of human body organs. Phil and Anthony Butler from New Zealand have been teaching physics and bioengineering respectively but this time they teamed up to develop a new technology through MARS Bioimaging (their company).
The project, which took the father and son a whole decade, gave rise to a scanner that uses hybrid-pixel technology known as Medipix3 for CERN. Initially developed for Large Hadron Collinder, the Medipix3 technology has its original concept on cameras. It detects and counts every individual particle that hits the pixels after opening of the electronic shutter. That allows production of higher resolution, higher contrast and reliable images.
MARS Bioimaging Ltd is the company commercializing this 3D scanner and has links with the Universities of Canterbury and Otago. Currently, Medipix3 is known to be the most advanced chip in the market and Professor Phil Butler knows that it will differentiate the “World’s First Full Colour, 3D X-ray” device from the other diagnostic devices in the market today. The accurate energy resolution and small pixels means that the imaging tool can capture images that no other devices can achieve.
Researchers have used the MARS scanner in their bone, cancer, vascular diseases and joint health studies. All the studies offer promising early results. Therefore, use of the imaging device in clinics will allow accurate diagnosis in addition to personalization of treatments.
Even though the data is not naturally coloured, its representation as such through a spectrum of X-ray passage through a targeted structure is possible. In turn, assignment of the different colours to various tissues – which come out as different intensities due to the densities and other properties common with most types of medical images. Therefore, the colour of bones is white, that of muscle mass is red and that of fat is yellow. The images that this new device produced show that.
A quick introduction to X-rays
William Roentgen discovered the first x-ray in the year 1895 and doctors started using it to diagnose broken bones and find bullets in the body. In the century that followed, many things in the medical world changed, but the black and white images of tumours and teeth remained the same. But doctors might start using full colour, 3D X-ray machines, which have shown freaky and revolutionary results after their trial.
X-rays are a form of electromagnetic energy wave – the energy that forms the visible light – but their wavelengths are around 1000-times smaller. Unlike the ordinary light, x-rays penetrate the body. And after placement of a sensor or x-ray sensitive film on one end and emission of x-rays starts on the other end, the dense materials such as bones (anything that can block the x-rays) appear as white on the sensor or film, the air appears as black and the soft tissues appear as shades of grey. The images come in handy when a doctor needs to know whether a patient has hairline fractures or rotten molars, but the soft tissue resolution is poor.
The advanced World’s First Full Color 3D X-Rays , known as MARS Spectral X-ray Scanner, reveals details of a bone, the soft tissues, and any other body component clearly. The reason behind that is the scanner uses a more sensitive chip known as Medipix3, which works like the digital camera sensors but it is more advanced.
The Medipix3 technology
Medipix3 is a group of read-out chips for imaging and detecting particles. As we have already said, the Medipix3 works more like a digital camera to detect and count every particle that hits the pixels after the electronic shutter opens. That enables high-contrast, high-resolution, reliable images, making it more beneficial for imaging applications in the medical world.
The initial purpose of the pixel-detector technology was to facilitate tracking of particles at the Large Hadron Collider. The successive Medipix chip generations have demonstrated great potential of technology outside the high-energy physics within a period of 20 years.
X-ray is the oldest type of non-invasive imaging and helps create images based on radiations that pass through a tissue exposed to them. Therefore, in the medical world x-ray technology provide doctors with partial or the entire structure – mostly the bones.
However, x-rays are very basic and are of lower resolution, compared to the modern high-tech modalities. Even more, they produce uniformly black and white images and therefore doctors rely on them when conducting medical diagnosis.
Comparison to the traditional imaging techniques
The Butlers claim that this new camera can capture disease markers within body tissues, which they evaluate. Unlike the conventional computed-tomography (CT), imaging that can also use x-rays, the detector array counts photons instead of detecting the intensity to produce an image. The method conceivably results to detail-rich and higher-resolution images.
The adaptations make detectors quantum optimized within the diagnostic energy range of humans (30-120 KeV). Each detector provides 128 x 128 pixels and measures 110 x 110 µm2. Moreover, extrapolation of the images into several data bins, which can translate into higher-quality visualizations, is possible.
Application of this new imaging device in the medical world
The specifications are pre-clinical in grade. However, that has left MARS with a broader range of uses and applications in the medical field. A quick example, the developers demonstrated the ability of this device to pick up markers of diseases in a bone with osteoarthritis.
MARS may also be applicable in preliminary assessment of growths, such as cancer, in the body. It also detects conventional markers engineered to bind to particular masses or structures, including gadolinium, gold and radioactive iodine. The device can potentially detect specific elements that exist naturally in pathological and healthy tissues, such as calcium. Therefore, the MARS team concluded that the new device could assess various body conditions like stroke or atherosclerosis.
The developers also equipped the scanner system with some common imaging equipment in addition to the camera. The device consists of a computerised workstation that generates or works with images, shielded cabinet to protect the operators and PACS server racks to store the image data. MARS will function within the general parameters of conventional X-ray scanners. It can emit the normal, medical-grade doses of 20-80 milliGray radiation and can interact with more optional sensors like thermosensors. The data can be preserved in standardised medical format (DICOM).
The Butlers also released images, which show results of the first tests on human subject. They displayed a complete wrist with a watch and an ankle, both in detail and full colour.