For decades, physicians have used CT scanners to take pictures deep inside your body. They’ve become indispensable to patient care, yet even these remarkable devices have their limits. Now, two research organizations are beginning a pilot study of a technology with the potential to produce X-ray images crisper and more precise than existing approaches. If all goes well, the breakthrough technology could vastly expand the capabilities of traditional computed tomography, revolutionize radiology once again.
The approach, which took decades to develop, uses a technique called photon counting and involves hypersensitive X-ray detectors made of silicon. A Swedish startup, Prismatic Sensors AB, had been studying the process and its promise potential was so great that GE Healthcare decided to acquire the company about a year ago, marking GE’s first acquisition since Larry Culp joined the company as chairman and CEO in late 2018.
While the device may look familiar on the outside, “its potential capabilities are totally different — enabling it could enable us to image small blood vessels and vascular pathologies as well as see malignant changes at an earlier stage when treatment can be more effective,” says Staffan Holmin, professor at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet, which is testing the device along with MedTech Labs.
The new technology holds the promise of a “substantial step forward” over CT machines, says Jean-Luc Procaccini, president and CEO of Molecular Imaging & Computed Tomography at GE Healthcare. First introduced some 50 years ago, CT scanners use X-rays to make cross-sectional images of the human body. Detectors produce billions of measurements per second of the total intensity of the X-rays passing through patients and then use the information to reconstruct images of the inside of the body. But issues like resolution and radiation dose remain.
In the early 1990s, scientists at GE Research started looking at photons. In this process, the device produces an image by “counting” X-ray photons, one by one, and determining each photon’s energy. The concept was solid, but researchers needed to find a material that detected the photons accurately and efficiently. After experimenting with a variety of substances, they settled on silicon because of its purity, abundance and existing manufacturing infrastructure. Silicon had its own problems, however. When placed in a certain “face on” position, it was too thin to stop and collect enough X-ray photons to work.
But then, in 2015, a chance encounter brought GE scientists together with Mats Danielsson, then CEO of Prismatic. He and colleagues figured out that turning the silicon detectors sideways — on the edge — can handle the large number of incoming photons. GE Healthcare’s Deep Silicon detectors, as they are called, can absorb photons fast enough to count hundreds of millions of CT photons per second, which can create much sharper images than standard CT.
The potential future implications for healthcare are many. Images produced by the new technology could provide more information for physicians — not only the material’s density but also its composition down to its finest structural details. That could allow doctors to visualize and assess potentially diseased tissues more accurately in lungs and hearts, for instance. As a result, Deep Silicon has the potential to significantly increase imaging performance for oncology, cardiology, neurology and many other applications — all while exposing patients to less radiation than traditional CT scans.
The pilot study will compare images taken with a Deep Silicon device to those from a standard CT. Following that, researchers plan to conduct additional studies on things like pattern recognition using artificial intelligence.
“We are on the cusp of something revolutionary in healthcare,” says Procaccini. “Medical technology providers must develop innovative solutions that make healthcare more human by breaking down barriers so clinicians can work at the top of their game, healthcare systems can operate more efficiently, and patients get the best and most precise care possible. While still in development, we believe our photon-counting CT with Deep Silicon detectors has the potential to do just that.”