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Images of breast tissue captured with a conventional X-ray machine (left) and the new technology by UCL (right)

X-ray advance offers superior bomb detection and cancer diganostics

Image credit: University College London

A new X-ray machine that can detect different shapes and types of matter has been developed by University College London engineers, promising to improve cancer diagnostics and explosives detection.

The technology measures how the X-ray slows down as it passes through different types of tissue. Conventional X-ray technology focuses on how tissue absorbs radiation. As a result, it can only provide a more detailed, subtle picture when inadvisably high doses of radiation are used.

“The technique has been around for decades, but it’s been limited to large-scale synchrotron facilities such as Oxfordshire’s Diamond Light Source,” said Professor Alessandro Olivo, who led the UCL project team. “We’ve now advanced this embryonic technology to make it viable for day-to-day use in medicine, security applications, industrial production lines, materials science, non-destructive testing, the archaeology and heritage sector and a whole range of other fields.”

The researchers are now cooperating with Nikon Metrology UK to develop a prototype security scanner that would provide better capability to detect weapons and explosives hidden in baggage, for example at airports.

In a separate project, also with Nikon Metrology UK, the team is developing a system that would enable surgeons to scan the breasts of cancer sufferers and immediately determine which tissue is malignant and which is healthy. Currently, patients frequently need to undergo multiple surgeries or have too much of their breast tissue removed, even when it’s not necessary.

The technology can even detect some tissue types invisible to conventional X-ray machines, such as cartilage, and plans are proceeding to set up a spinout company to take this aspect towards commercialisation.

“This has the potential to be incredibly versatile, game-changing technology,” said Professor Olivo. “We’re currently negotiating with a number of companies to explore how it could be put to practical use.”

The technology was developed as part of a five-year project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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