Your next X-ray could be in full color and 3D

Next-gen technology will bring unprecedented detail and versatility.

A 3D MARS image of an ankle viewed from the side where the soft tissue (coloured in red) has been made translucent to show the bones (white) and lipid-like material (yellow) inside the ankle.
A 3D MARS image of an ankle viewed from the side where the soft tissue (coloured in red) has been made translucent to show the bones (white) and lipid-like material (yellow) inside the ankle. (Photo: MARS Bioimaging Ltd)

After more than a century of black and white, the X-ray is finally on the verge of going full color.

Father and son scientists Phil and Anthony Butler, from the universities of Canterbury and Otago in New Zealand, have successfully developed the world's first 3D color medical scanner. Called the MARS spectral X-ray scanner, the technology captures internal images in stunning detail of not only bone, but also the surrounding tissues. It's being hailed as a momentous breakthrough that will revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of diseases like cancer and heart disease.

"X-ray spectral information allows health professionals to measure the different components of body parts such as fat, water, calcium, and disease markers," professor Anthony Butler said in a release. "Traditional black-and-white X-rays only allow measurement of the density and shape of an object."

As shown in the video below, the scanner also allows medical professionals to view the internal structure of a target area layer-by-layer.

"As a new imaging device, a new microscope if you like, biomedical researchers can non-invasively see different kinds of detail inside patients," added Butler.

High-energy physics lends a hand

Whereas a traditional X-ray uses a sensor or film to record how much radiation makes it through our body from one side to the other (with dense materials like bones absorbing the radiation), the MARS scanner measures the entire spectrum of the X-ray, detecting and counting individual particles as they collide with pixels. As a result, it works very much like a camera, producing a high-resolution image in full 3D and in color.

The technology used to make all of this happen comes from an unexpected source: CERN's Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, which in 2012 discovered the elusive Higgs Boson particle. A chip developed for particle imaging and detection in the collider, called the Medipix3, was adapted by the medical scientists for use in the MARS scanner.

"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," Phil Butler said in a release for CERN.

A 3D image of a wrist with a watch showing part of the finger bones in white and soft tissue in red. A 3D image of a wrist with a watch showing part of the finger bones in white and soft tissue in red. (Photo: MARS Bioimaging Ltd)

While the technology has been under development for nearly a decade, it has only recently entered clinical trials. Early results, however, indicate that it will soon become an indispensable tool to the medical community.

"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," Butler said. "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 personalization of treatment."

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