New X-ray technique could improve bomb detection and breast cancer treatment

Supplementary content information

Two images showing hospital images of an in vitro breast specimen

Two images showing a hospital image of an in vitro breast specimen (left) and one taken using phase contrast X-ray imaging at UCL (right). The phase-contrast image has detected clustered calcifications far more accurately than the conventional image, suggesting with more certainty the possibility of breast cancer and allowing for better visualisation of tumour details 

University College London

An exciting X-ray imaging technology has been successfully developed to the point where it is now ready for translation into all kinds of beneficial applications, including potentially life-saving uses in security and healthcare.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a major five-year project led by UCL (University College London) has achieved this breakthrough. The work also involved dozens of industrial, academic and research partners in the UK and worldwide.

Compared with conventional X-rays, the technology can, for example, identify tumours in living tissue earlier and spot smaller cracks and defects in materials. This is because it excels at determining different shapes and different types of matter - a capability that conventional X-rays could only match by using prohibitively high doses of radiation.

The technique at the heart of the advance is called phase-contrast X-ray imaging. Instead of measuring the extent to which tissue or materials absorb radiation - as in conventional X-ray imaging - it measures the physical effect that passing through different types of tissue or material has on the speed of the X-ray itself.

Professor Alessandro Olivo, who led the project team, says: 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 vast potential is already beginning to be explored. For example:

  • Under licence, Nikon Metrology UK has incorporated the technology into a prototype security scanner. This is currently being tested and further developed to provide enhanced threat detection against weapons and explosives concealed, for example, in baggage.
  • Building on the EPSRC-funded work, a new three-year project supported by the Wellcome Trust will see the Nikon Metrology/UCL team develop a prototype scanner for use during breast cancer surgery in collaboration with Barts Heath and Queen Mary University of London. The aim is to help surgeons determine the exact extent of the malignancy and to reduce the need to recall patients for further operations, resulting in more effective breast conservation surgery, less need for full mastectomies and more rapid treatment.
  • The technology can even detect some tissue types invisible to conventional X-ray machines, such as cartilage, and plans are proceeding to set up a spinout company to take this aspect towards commercialisation.

Professor Olivo says: This has the potential to be incredibly versatile, game-changing technology. We're currently negotiating with a number of companies to explore how it could be put to practical use. There's really no limit to the benefits this technique could deliver.

Notes for Editors:

The five-year project Transforming the Use of X-rays in Science and Society ran from November 2011 to October 2016 and received £1.05 million in EPSRC funding under the Challenging Engineering programme. The project created 28 new collaborations and produced around 75 journal papers. Partners and collaborators included:

Industry: Nikon; Siemens; Perkin Elmer; Creatv Microtech; Rigaku; Pixirad; X-Counter; QinetiQ.

Academia: Imperial College London; Queen Mary University of London; University of Oxford; Ludwig-Maximillian University, Munich; University of Washington in St Louis, Missouri; Kyoto University; Heriot-Watt University; University of Bristol; University of Dundee; University of Glasgow; University of Strathclyde; University of Saskatchewan; University of Trieste; University of Pisa.

Research Institutes/Facilities: Diamond Light Source; ELETTRA Sincrotrone Trieste ScpA; European Synchrotron Radiation Facility; Research Complex at Harwell; CNR Institute of Crystallography - Italy; EMPA Switzerland; Barts Health NHS Trust; INFN Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare, Pisa and Trieste Sections. 

Within UCL: Department of Mechanical Engineering; Department of Chemical Engineering; Department of Physics and Astronomy; London Centre for Nanotechnology (a joint UCL-Imperial College establishment); Institute of Child Health; Great Ormond Street Hospital.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

As the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research, our vision is for the UK to be the best place in the world to Research, Discover and Innovate. By investing £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. We work collectively with our partners and other Research Councils on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

UCL (University College London)

UCL was founded in 1826. We were the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world's top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 38,000 students from 150 countries and over 12,000 staff. Our annual income is more than £1 billion.

Wellcome Trust

Wellcome exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. We're a global charitable foundation, both politically and financially independent. We support scientists and researchers, take on big problems, fuel imaginations and spark debate.

Reference: PN 72-16

Contact Details

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Professor Alessandro Olivo
Job title: Applied Physics
Organisation: University College London
Telephone: 0207 679 2444

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: EPSRC Press Office
Telephone: 01793 444404