New X-ray technique could have significant benefits for breast cancer patients

Thursday 15th December 2016
Phase-contrast X-ray imaging could help to improve outcomes for breast cancer patients. Image: kalus via iStock
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Scientists in the UK have successfully developed a new technique, known as phase-contrast X-ray imaging, that has the potential to significantly improve outcomes for breast cancer patients.

Researchers from University College London have spent the past five years developing the technology, thanks to funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Phase-contrast X-ray imaging is different from traditional X-ray techniques, as instead of measuring the extent to which tissue or other parts of the body are able to absorb radiation, it examines the speed at which an X-ray is able to pass through different types of material.

As a result, phase-contrast X-rays are able to show newly-growing tumours in living tissue, alongside identifying cracks in other materials in the body, such as cartilage, which is currently invisible to conventional X-ray machines.

What's more, the technique is significantly more effective than traditional X-rays in determining different shapes and types of matter, which could prove very beneficial to radiographers.

For example, breast cancer tumours are more likely to show up earlier, allowing patients to begin accessing potentially life-saving treatment much sooner than with previous methods.

The researchers believe that incorporating the technology into breast cancer scanning equipment could help to prevent patients requiring further operations in the future, subsequently reducing the need for as many mastectomies.

However, it's not just the healthcare sector that phase-contrast X-rays are set to be beneficial for, as the technology's abilities also mean it could help with bomb detection when placed in airport security scanners and may even help archaeologists to find previously undetectable objects.

Project leader Professor Alessandro Olivo explained: "The technique has been around for decades, but it's been limited to large-scale synchrotron facilities, such as Oxfordshire's Diamond Light Source.

"We've now advanced this embryonic technology to make it viable for day-to-day use in medicine, security applications, industrial production lines, materials science, non-destructive testing, the archaeology and heritage sector, and a whole range of other fields.

"This has the potential to be incredibly versatile, game-changing technology."

Written by Megan Smith

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