New Path to Better X-ray Breast Cancer Imaging

European researchers come up with a new way of making X-rays for phase-contrast imaging

2 min read
New Path to Better X-ray Breast Cancer Imaging
Image: Z. Wang/ETH Zurich/PSI

Researchers in Switzerland have improved the ability of x-rays to help early diagnosis of breast cancer. The new x-ray technique, called “phase contrast imaging” (PCI), has been in development as a medical imaging technology since the 1990s, and it's a more sensitive kind of camera that can examine soft tissue inside the body without requiring a person to swallow kidney-compromising “contrast agents” like iodine or barium.

As IEEE Spectrum reported earlier this year, PCI compares the propagation speed of X-ray wavefronts as they pass through a subject, using algorithms that infer the composition of the X-rayed material from the signal delays the device detects along each beam. So while old-fashioned X-rays could only take photo negative pictures of hard and dense objects that stopped x-rays cold — like bones — PCI instead examines X-rays that pass through its subject. That gives it the soft tissue sensitivity and imaging precision of CT scans but at a fraction of CT scans’ high X-ray doses.

The catch to date has been that the best PCI methods require X-ray sources that produce a wavefront that is well synchronized. And this has traditionally meant only the kind of (synchrotron) x-rays that giant particle accelerators can produce, which of course limits the number of patients that can use PCI and makes it really expensive and inaccessible to boot.

Yet new, cheaper and more compact X-ray sources are being developed now that could enable synchrotron-like X-ray PCI without the need for any big, rare, and expensive particle accelerators.

Spectrum previously reported on an X-ray chip developed at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital. The new effort, led by researchers at  ETH Zurich, the Paul Scherrer Institute, and the Kantonsspital Baden, instead relies on a more traditional X-ray tube but one whose rays pass through a series of fine metal grates, providing coherence enough for PCI. (A 2010 review of the various experimental techniques in x-ray PCI mammography described this “grating interferometry” method as “promising” though still time consuming and technically challenging.)

For a patient, PCI would enable earlier and more accurate cancer detection, though it remains unclear if the new development will offer the most effective X-ray source for real-world mammograms. (The researchers explain that they have, to date, only run their PCI method on tissue samples and not yet on human patients.),

The Conversation (0)

Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic

Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

Keep Reading ↓Show less