World's brightest X-rays usher in medical imaging revolution

World's brightest X-rays usher in medical imaging revolution
A new X-ray technology allows for whole organs to be imaged down to a resolution of one micron
A new X-ray technology allows for whole organs to be imaged down to a resolution of one micron
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A new X-ray technology allows for whole organs to be imaged down to a resolution of one micron
A new X-ray technology allows for whole organs to be imaged down to a resolution of one micron

A groundbreaking new imaging technique, utilizing X-rays generated by a cutting-edge particle accelerator, is offering 3D images of whole organs in unprecedented detail. Demonstrating the technology researchers imaged the lung of a deceased COVID-19 patient, revealing novel insights into how the disease disrupts blood oxygenation.

The new technology is called Hierarchical Phase-Contrast Tomography (HiP-CT) and is an X-ray technique that allows whole organs to be imaged down to a resolution of 1 micron, or 100 times the resolution of a conventional CT scan.

The imaging advance comes from a technological upgrade at the European Synchrotron Research Facility (ESRF). This cutting-edge particle accelerator was improved recently with what is dubbed the Extremely Brilliant Source upgrade (ESRF-EBS).

This EBS upgrade created the world’s first fourth-generation synchrotron, making it the brightest X-ray source in the world. This increased X-ray performance by a factor of 100 in terms of “brilliance and coherence.” And the X-rays generated by this device are 100 billion times brighter than what is found in a conventional hospital X-ray.

Human Organ Atlas: HiP-CT imaging of a healthy human brain using the ESRF-EBS

"The idea to develop this new HiP-CT technique came after the beginning of the global pandemic, by combining several techniques that were used at the ESRF to image large fossils, and using the increased sensitivity of the new Extremely Brilliant Source at the ESRF, ESRF-EBS,” explains lead scientist at ESRF Paul Tafforeau. “This allows us to see in 3D the incredibly small vessels within a complete human organ, enabling us to distinguish in 3D a blood vessel from the surrounding tissue, and even to observe some specific cells.”

Using the new technology, a team led by researchers from University College London is launching a project called the Human Organ Atlas. Peter Lee, who is leading the project, says the goal of the Human Organ Atlas is to fill a gap in our understanding of human anatomy.

“Clinical CT and MRI scans can resolve down to just below a millimeter, whilst histology (studying cells/biopsy slices under a microscope), electron microscopy (which uses an electron beam to generate images) and other similar techniques resolve structures with sub-micron accuracy, but only on small biopsies of tissue from an organ,” says Lee. “HiP-CT bridges these scales in 3D, imaging whole organs to provide new insights into our biological makeup."

Human Organ Atlas: HiP-CT imaging of a healthy human lung using the ESRF-EBS

The Human Organ Atlas will be a free online resource and it launches with displays of several key human organs, including the brain, kidneys, heart and spleen. The project also offers imaging comparing a healthy lung against a lung from a deceased COVID-19 patient.

A fundamental pathological sign of a COVID-19 deterioration is a sharp drop in blood oxygenation levels and HiP-CT imaging has revealed insights into how this occurs through a process known as “shunting.” It had been previously hypothesized that COVID-19 reduces blood oxygen rates by increasing levels of shunting in the lungs but this is the first direct evidence of that process.

"By combining our molecular methods with the HiP-CT multiscale imaging in lungs affected by COVID-19 pneumonia, we gained a new understanding [of] how shunting between blood vessels in a lung's two vascular systems occurs in COVID-19 injured lungs, and the impact it has on oxygen levels in our circulatory system,” says Danny Jonigk, a researcher from Hannover Medical School working on the project.

Human Organ Atlas: HiP-CT imaging of a COVID-19 injured human lung using the ESRF-EBS

HiP-CT is designed to offer doctors a library of images documenting how different diseases affect a variety of organs. This never-before-seen structural data illustrates how disease can influence tissue architecture down to resolutions as small as one micron.

Claire Walsh, a mechanical engineer from University College London working on the project, says the detailed imagery will be used in tandem with machine learning techniques to improve insights garnered from clinical imaging such as MRI and CT scans. As well as helping better calibrate and improve those current technologies, Walsh suggests the HiP-CT data will help researchers develop AI systems than can clarify MRI and CT imaging.

"The ability to see organs across scales like this will really be revolutionary for medical imaging,” says Walsh. “As we start to link our HiP-CT images to clinical images through AI techniques, we will – for the first time – be able to highly accurately validate ambiguous findings in clinical images.”

A new study reporting on HiP-CT was published in the journal Nature Methods.

Source: University College London

Tech Fascinated
"100 billion times brighter than what is found in a conventional hospital X-ray" presumably not for use on a live patient?
The article seems to have Forgoten to state if this technique is incompatible with imaging living mammals or just cadavers. As per RobC comment.

We who are intelligent need to know what "brighter" means... ie. More energetic or higher power?? The downside of higher energy is at indent dose increases astronomically to achieve the same absorbed dose.. Scatter events can be interesting....
Sounds like this is only for dead organs, probably the radiation level is also > 100x a typical CT scan, which would basically destroy living tissue.
Maybe 1000 times brighter for 1000th of the time may not cook the patient to destruction??
Brian M
RobC and MQ are right the article lacks a little in clarity in how this technique works.

Perhaps the brightness (power ?) means a lot shorter exposure time, so effectively a faster shutter speed, less blur and possible higher X-ray frequency, so better resolution? Would the overall radiation dose to the patient sample be the same or would the physics be different with higher frequency and energy photons?

Which is the biggest factor, 'brilliance' or the improved coherence of the X-rays?

Come on, guys. New Atlas provides source links at the end of every article. Is it really that hard to click on those if you want more information? This is being used to create the Human Organ Atlas by imaging organs donated from cadavers, not for live patients.
I want to know what "brighter" means in this context. Does it mean "more intense" or does it imply a change in x-ray frequency or what? If the emission is so intense that it puts a living target in peril, then where is the utility?
The article appears to assume we realize a synchrotron is not coming to our local hospital Radiology department any time soon. After all, the ESRF synchrotron is 844 meters (2,800 feet) in circumference and has an annual operating budget of €100 million/US$115 million.

So, no, doesn’t seem likely we’ll be doing live human scans this way any time soon.

If you’d like to wade thru the detailed specifications for this latest ESRF €150 million/US$ 175 million upgrade… (the brilliance comments)
This is incredible, but it looked like the blood was flowing in the brain video? So it can be used on living tissue without too much radiation damage? I'm confused.
I guess instant AI autopsies could become a thing someday.

I was reading this hoping it can somehow improve CT scans to get better resolution without the need for injecting contrast fluid and with fewer passes and less overall radiation load.
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