Professor Phil Butler and his team at the University of Canterbury are looking to make X-ray detectors that give images in true colour and far greater detail than conventional X-rays and current CT scans. The electronic chip used in the detector, gets a signal with very little non-useful information compared to current methods. This means the image quality used routinely today could be done with much smaller doses of X-rays. This could lead to using X-rays for screening programmes where patients need repeat images taken of their insides over time.

In September 2014 the University of Canterbury was given $12 million to build the world's first human colour X-ray scanner. Find out more in this press release from the university: 
World's first colour x-ray scanner to be developed.

The technology involves a special chip called Medipix. The Medipix chip is similar to the chip in a digital camera, but instead of detecting light, it detects X-rays. The chip can take very thin image slices and it can measure over time, so X-ray movies are possible. Phil’s project is called MARS – which stands for Medipix All Resolution System.

Why New Zealand?

The Medipix chip was designed and is continuing to be improved by scientists working for, or with, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, based on the border of France and Switzerland near Geneva. It may seem strange that scientists across the world are developing its use in medical X-ray imaging, but the Christchurch situation is unique.

Research is about ideas and developing new concepts, but it is also about people. In Christchurch, the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Canterbury used to be across the road from the hospital, so good relationships developed between the people in the research labs in the physics department, and the radiologists and researchers using medical imaging in the hospital. These links have continued today.

Nature of science

Scientists often work as part of a team. There may be different research groups within a university or organisation working together or, as in Christchurch, universities working with hospitals and other research organisations.

Having all these people with their different skills discussing ideas has allowed the development of this technology for medical imaging. Another unique link in this research is the involvement of Phil's son Anthony. As well as having a medical degree and being a consulting radiologist at Christchurch Hospital, he also has qualifications in physics and maths – providing a link between the radiologists and the research.

The future

This new technology could be used for better cancer detection because it can provide images that show whether a tumour is more vascular or more fatty tissue – a tumour that is just fatty tissue is not cancerous. It could be used to give much greater detail in bone density scans, and to diagnose osteoporosis or assess someone's risk of bone fractures. It could also be used to quickly diagnose internal injuries after a car crash, so doctors know whether they need to operate immediately or not.

The technology has such exciting potential to revolutionise current medical imaging techniques – so will Professor Phil Butler become a millionaire?

Unfortunately there are many obstacles to overcome to sell the technology. The medical equipment industry is very highly regulated and a new product has to meet rigorous standards before people will buy it – this costs a lot of money and someone has to provide that money. To invest the money, the provider has to be sure there are potential buyers for the product, but this new technology will require hospitals to buy new equipment – they will have to retrain their staff, and the radiologists have to be willing to learn new skills. It is a risky venture.

So what’s next?

To start with, a unit is being developed for use in animal research laboratories. After that, it is up to the right combination of people working together to bring this new technology into routine hospital use.

Useful links

In this Youtube video listen to Associate Prof Anthony Butler on the MARS colour medical scanner and the work to scale up from a mouse size scanner to one that can image the human body.

Visit the CERN website.

Visit the MARS Bioimaging website to find out more about the Medipix All Resolution System.

    Published 25 July 2007, Updated 12 September 2014