First 3D colour X-ray of a human using CERN technology

Written by: Tom Austin-Morgan | Published:
A 3D image of a wrist with a watch showing part of the finger bones in white and soft tissue in red. (Image: MARS Bioimaging Ltd)

A New-Zealand company has scanned a human body using a colour medical scanner based on Medipix3 technology developed at CERN. Father and son scientists Professors Phil and Anthony Butler from Canterbury and Otago Universities spent a decade building and refining their product.

Medipix is a family of read-out chips for particle imaging and detection. The original concept of Medipix is that it works like a camera, detecting and counting each individual particle hitting the pixels when its electronic shutter is open. This enables high-resolution, high-contrast, reliable images for imaging applications in particular in the medical field.

Hybrid pixel-detector technology was initially developed to address the needs of particle tracking at the Large Hadron Collider, and successive generations of Medipix chips have demonstrated over 20 years the great potential of the technology outside of high-energy physics.

Timepix3, one of the read-out chips of Medipix (Image: CERN)

MARS Bioimaging, which is commercialising the 3D scanner, is linked to the University of Otago and Canterbury. According to Prof Phil Butler, the Medipix3 chip is the most advanced chip available today: “This 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.”

MARS’ solution couples the spectroscopic information generated by the Medipix3 enabled detector with powerful algorithms to generate 3D images. The colours represent different energy levels of the X-ray photons as recorded by the detector hence identifying different components of body parts such as fat, water, calcium, and disease markers.

So far, researchers have been using a small version of the MARS scanner to study cancer, bone and joint health, and vascular diseases that cause heart attacks and strokes. “In all of these studies, promising early results suggest that when spectral imaging is routinely used in clinics it will enable more accurate diagnosis and personalisation of treatment,” Professor Anthony Butler said.

Aurélie Pezous, CERN Knowledge Transfer Officer added: “It is always satisfying to see our work leveraging benefits for patients around the world. Real-life applications such as this one fuels our efforts to reach even further.”

In the coming months, orthopaedic and rheumatology patients in New Zealand will be scanned by the MARS scanner in a clinical trial that is said to be a world first, paving the way to a potentially routine use of this equipment.


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