The University of Southampton

Optical X-rays research launched to revolutionise medical imaging

Published: 22 May 2020
3D images created by fibre lasers to enable non-invasive medical diagnoses

Ground-breaking research involving the Zepler Institute for Photonics and Nanoelectronics is harnessing optical physics for a new generation of medical scanners capable of producing high definition 3D images.

Researchers are combining cutting-edge laser technology with new chemistries to develop devices that can see inside a patient's body to provide fast diagnoses and considerable savings for the NHS.

University of Southampton researchers have been awarded £2.4 million by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council as part of the £6.8 million Lighting the Way to a Healthy Nation programme. The project will be led by Professor Mark Bradley from the University of Edinburgh and include contributions from the University of Nottingham.

Far-red 'invisible' light has the potential to provide clearer diagnostic information fast, and is benign so does not have any of the damaging effects of other technologies. However, current diagnostic light microscopy technology can only penetrate 1mm beneath a patient's skin.

The Southampton team will build on the world-leading expertise in the Zepler Institute's Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) to develop lasers that can go to 5mm, deep enough to diagnose melanomas, and then to 10s of mm which would allow healthcare workers to look at joints and bones.

One of the challenges for this form of microscopy is that light at the blue end of the spectrum is more likely to scatter, which makes it difficult to focus on the target area. To compensate for this, the researchers will use far-red lasers, which do not scatter as much and also to make use of artificial intelligence (AI) to reconstruct images.

Professor David Richardson, Deputy Director of the Zepler Institute and ORC with over 30 years' expertise in pulsed fibre research says: "The fibre lasers in this new range of far-red wavelengths has the potential to revolutionise medical imaging.

"The ORC does everything in house from making the new fibres required to access the wavelengths of interest in the project, through to designing and building the laser required to the necessary specifications, to producing prototype units that can be sent out to the project partners."

Current medical imaging technologies have advanced in recent years but also come with limitations. MRI scans are expensive and require a contrast agent to be injected into the patient's body which can be toxic. X-Rays are also a powerful diagnosis tool but can be dangerous and only show bones, whilst ultrasound is non-invasive but does not provide high resolution images.

The initial research will look to develop hand-held devices that can be used in GP surgeries and on hospital wards. In the longer term, the team aim to develop the technology into full body scanners.

Professor Sumeet Mahajan, Professor of Molecular Biophotonics and Imaging, says: "Getting an accurate diagnosis can be a lengthy process and very expensive, often requiring subsequent medical referrals, biopsies and exploratory surgery.

"Detecting diseases quickly, cheaply and without any invasive techniques will allow for faster treatment and better quality of life for patients as well as reducing the burden of a resource constrained NHS. The vision of contactless and damage-free diagnostic walk-through imaging by 2050 is achievable."

In the early stages of the research, the team will test the products they develop on osteoporosis and osteoarthritis samples with the Faculty of Medicine. An ageing population means bone disease is likely to become more and more prevalent and it has been estimated that diseases such as these will costs the NHS £50 billion per year by 2050.

Professor Richard Oreffo, Director of the Centre for Human Development, Stem Cells and Regeneration, says: "The world-leading technology developed at Southampton will be truly transformative for diagnosing bone ailments given the ageing population."

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