Half a century after Sir Godfrey Hounsfield invented the CT scanner, the next wave in medical imaging is here. The hybrid pixel detector technology which the Large Hadron Collider used to track accelerated particles has been used by a father and son team of scientists, Phil and Anthony Butler, to produce the first three-dimensional colour images of the human body. A chip of the Medipix family developed by CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, has been used by MARS Bioimaging to take colour see-through images of body parts which are a generation ahead of currently available technology. The chip family has been in production for 20 years, and CERN’s Knowledge Transfer Group had expected it to contribute to areas outside quantum physics, but sheer magic was not anticipated.
The traditional radiological practices are complementary. Techniques based on X-rays suffer from the deficit that they can sharply visualise only hard tissues. The shadows of soft tissues are less precise. Blood vessels and other conduits are imaged with invasive dyes. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides a slightly different picture, based on the difference in water and fat content in tissues. Positron emission tomography (PET) finds widest use in oncology. All but MRIs use radiation and dyes and chemical markers. Now the Medipix3, which MARS Bioimaging intends to commercialise, promises a single solution superior to its predecessors. Using algorithms to model very accurate spectroscopic data in three dimensions, it shows all tissues with equal clarity, in colour.
In the case of a fracture, for instance, not only would it show physical damage to a bone — which is what an X-ray depicts — but it would also reveal trauma to surrounding tissue and reveal if blood and nerve supply is compromised. Also, it would depict structures exactly as they are, and not all of us are built exactly the same. In the near future, when medical care will be customised to the individual, this exactitude would make a difference to the efficacy of care. Dare we look ahead a few more decades? If a complete image of a human were taken by a future iteration of this technology, would it be possible to 3D print a lost limb or a malfunctioning organ later? Researchers have already used Medipix to image cancerous tissue, bones and joints and the blood supply to the heart. The technology is scaling up rapidly, and holds incredible promise.