The x-ray was first discovered by William Roentgen in 1895, and very soon after doctors began using the technique to find bullets and diagnose broken bones. Though over the next century much about medicine has changed, the black and white images of teeth and tumors have remained more or less the same. But now, the first test of a new full color, 3D x-ray machine has been conducted on a human, and the results are revolutionary and freaky at the same time, reports Kristin Houser at Futurism.
X-rays are a type of electromagnetic energy wave, the same energy that makes up visible light but at wavelengths about 1000 times smaller. Unlike light, the x-rays can penetrate the human body. If an x-ray sensitive film or sensor is placed on one side and x-rays are emitted on the other, dense material like bone that blocks the x-rays will appear white on the film, while soft tissue appears in shades of gray and air appears black. The images are great at showing if you have a hairline fracture or a rotten molar, but the resolution of soft tissue is pretty poor.
The updated x-ray machine, called the MARS Spectral X-ray Scanner, however, is able to reveal detail of bones, soft tissue and other components of the body with incredible clarity. That’s because the scanner uses a highly sensitive chip called the Medipix3, which acts like the sensor in a digital camera, except much more advanced. In fact, according to a press release, the Medipix was developed from technology created by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), used to detect particles in its Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator. The chip can count the photons hitting each pixel and determine their energy level. From that information a series of algorithms is then able to determine the position of things like bone, fat, cartilage and other tissues, which are then colorized.
While the chip makes the machine possible, it still took 10 years of work and refinement by New Zealand father and son scientists Phil Butler, a physicist at the University of Canterbury, and radiologist Anthony Butler of Canterbury and the University of Otago, to make the machine a reality. “[T]his technology sets the machine apart diagnostically because its small pixels and accurate energy resolution mean that this new imaging tool is able to get images that no other imaging tool can achieve,” Phil Butler says in the release.
Recently, researchers have used a smaller version of the scanner in studies of cancer, bone and joint health, with positive results. But recently the Butlers and their company MARS Bioimaging tested the full size version of the scanner on Phil, who allowed his ankle and wrist, including his wristwatch, to be imaged. The scans are both mesmerizing and a little gruesome, but most importantly they are detailed in a way that x-rays simply are not, which could lead to more accurate and personalized diagnoses.
The spectral x-ray still needs to go through several years of refinement and testing before it makes it to the doctor’s office. But it’s not the only new technology revamping how we use x-rays. A few years ago, researchers revealed a technology called the Halo x-ray system, which allows baggage screeners to not only see items in suitcases and packages but can differentiate between substances, like shampoo and nitroglycerin. And even if it takes a while for the 3D color scans to become commonplace, another new tech might help us understand the good old black-and-white x-rays and CT scans better. Another group is training artificial intelligence to interpret the images faster, better and cheaper than a doctor could.