Though it looks much the same on the outside, a new computerized tomography (CT) scanner is a whole new story when it comes to the inside — the inside of a patient, that is. A photon-counting detector CT scanner is being given a pilot run at the National Institutes of Health, where researchers investigate its use in a medical setting. The prototype technology from Siemens Healthcare is expected to surpass conventional CT scanning by providing an enhanced, more detailed look inside the body.

Best of all, the technology delivers only a minimum amount of radiation to patients lying in the scanner bed.

Why is the NIH looking into this new machine? The advanced technology increases both the resolution and contrasts available for analysis, so it may be instrumental in improving diagnosis, the scientists say in a statement to the press. Among its benefits:

  • Doctors should be able to see selected areas of the body in greater detail and with anatomic precision.
  • By using new contrast agents, different materials in the body will be displayed in different colors for faster diagnosis and precision.
  • The technology can identify and characterize tumors, plaques, or vessels that are smaller than half a millimeter.
  • The new CT scanner also can identify soft tissues such as proteins, tendons, or collagen, which are difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate with the current equipment.

The image below shows you the color and resolution captured by the scanner.

Scanned Image Courtesy of the NIH

Algorithms and Protocols

In the study and treatment of disease, surgery is often viewed as the last option. CT scanning is one way that doctors can examine the body’s internal features without resorting to a patient undergoing the knife. The scan works by taking X-ray images from different angles and then using an algorithm and computer processing to combine the series of images and create cross-sectional pictures, or slices, of the bones, blood vessels, and soft tissues inside your body. These scanned images can be used to diagnose injuries as well as disease and frequently doctors use them to plan surgeries or other medical treatments.

The NIH Clinical Center, which sees thousands of patients every year, is one of three sites in the world to use this technology. More than 45 volunteers enrolled in a research study of the equipment. Over the next five years, Dr. David Bluemke and his colleagues in the department of radiology and imaging sciences will develop algorithms and scan protocols in the hopes of improving diagnosis, screening, and treatment planning for cancer and cardiovascular disease.