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Synchrotron X-ray technique used for bomb detection and breast cancer treatment


The technique can detect different shapes and types of matter to detect tumours in living tissue and defects in materials

An X-ray imaging technology previously used in synchrotron facilities has been further developed to improve bomb detection and breast cancer treatment.

 The technology, called phase-contrast X-ray imaging, can identify tumours in living tissue earlier and spot smaller cracks and defects in materials. This is because it can determine different shapes and different types of matter, a capability that conventional X-rays can only achieve by using excessively high doses of radiation.

Instead of measuring the extent to which tissue or materials absorb radiation – as in conventional X-ray imaging – it measures the physical effect that passing through different types of tissue or material has on the speed of the X-ray itself.

Professor Alessandro Olivo said: “The technique has been around for decades but it’s been limited to large-scale synchrotron facilities such as Oxfordshire’s Diamond Light Source. 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.”

Under licence, Nikon Metrology UK has incorporated the technology into a prototype security scanner. This is currently being tested and further developed to provide enhanced threat detection against weapons and explosives concealed, for example, in baggage.

A prototype scanner is being developed for use during breast cancer surgery in collaboration with Barts Heath and Queen Mary University of London. The aim is to help surgeons determine the exact extent of the tumour and to reduce the need to recall patients for further operations, resulting in more effective breast conservation surgery, less need for full mastectomies and more rapid treatment.

The technology can also 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. 

The project has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and led by University College London, and also involved industrial, academic and research partners in the UK and worldwide.                 

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