By adapting Hybrid Pixel Detector technology, which was initially used in the hunt for the ‘God particle’ at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Professor Phil Butler of the University of Canterbury and his son Anthony Butler of the University of Otago and Canterbury have created the MARS spectral x-ray scanner, and revolutionised medical imaging technology.
This new device measures the x-ray spectrum and uses smaller pixel sizes to produce highly detailed, coloured images. Normal x-rays — which produce low resolution, black and white images — are said to be primitive in comparison. The images produced by the Butlers’ invention offer a far greater collection of diagnostic information than any other imaging tool currently being used in medicine, while also being non-invasive.
“X-ray spectral information allows health professionals to measure the different components of body parts such as fat, water, calcium, and disease markers,” says Anthony. “Traditional black-and-white x-rays only allow measurement of the density and shape of an object.”
Explaining further, he adds that researchers have been using a small version of the MARS scanner to study cancer, bone and joint health, as well as vascular diseases that cause heart attacks and strokes, and that results had been promising in all of these studies. He was confident that the technology will soon enable more accurate diagnosis and increased personalisation of treatment.
Small versions of the scanner that can house tissue samples are already in use at several research institutions. Furthermore, the first human test subject — Phil Butler himself — was scanned through a larger form of the scanner in July. His ankle and wrist were imaged in startling detail.
An imminent clinical trial where orthopaedic and rheumatology patients from a hospital in Christchurch, New Zealand will be scanned is the next step in the development of this technology. This will allow the MARS team to compare the images produced by their scanner with the technology currently used in other New Zealand hospitals.