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11th February 2016

Cancer Imaging in Living Color

Photographs and films have seen a rapid transformation from black and white to color over the last century.  Our x-rays, however, have always remained in black and white.

X-rays have been used to look inside the human body since 1895, when Wilhelm Roentgen took the first X-ray photo of his wife’s hand. Six months later, surgeons on the battlefield used the same technology to locate bullets in wounded soldiers. Roentgen was awarded the first Nobel Prize in physics, and his discovery laid the foundation for the next century of medical imaging. Today, physicians use a variety of imaging technologies like X-rays, mammograms, and computed tomography (CT) scans, to detect and diagnose diseases.

The ability to interpret the gray images they currently provide can make the difference between life and death. In the case of diseases like cancer for instance, better imaging can help with the early detection of abnormal tissues, therefore giving access to faster and more efficient treatment options.

So what if, instead of seeing the body in shades of gray, physicians could see tissues and abnormalities in color?

A new technology called spectral computed tomography (or spectral CT) is trying just that, bringing living color to cancer imaging.

Different colors help identify differences in tissues, and can highlight tumors in the body.

The spectral CT works by using iodine contrast agents which help illuminate tissues in the body. It detects up to eight X-ray energy channels simultaneously and it assigns a different color to each channel.  The spectral CT displays all of the colors together, resulting in a more complete picture of a patient’s health.

“The technology promises a transformation for biomedical imaging in general, and cancer imaging in particular,” says Bradley Smith, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Notre Dame University and director of the Notre Dame Integrated Imaging Facility.

A team at Indiana University School of Medicine at South Bend is currently researching contrast agents that “target” tissues associated with cancer and other diseases.

In addition to screening for cancer, spectral CT imaging also allows physicians to see other ailments in the body, such as kidney stones, plaques, or uric acid crystals.

Due to the additional information provided by each spectral CT, patients may be exposed to fewer contrast agents and fewer scans over the course of their treatment.

“It takes us beyond comparing the number of ‘slices’ to a discussion about fundamentally better and more clinically valuable imaging,” says David P. Hofstra, administrative director of the Diagnostic Imaging and Therapy Division at Saint Joseph Health System in Mishawaka. “Someday, spectral CT technology may allow altogether different types of contrast materials. Targeted contrast agents may show important clinical findings that we can only begin to imagine currently,” he adds.

Source: The transformation of cancer imaging: From shades of gray to living color