Anthony and Phil Butler aren’t just a son and father. The bioengineering teacher and physics professor (respectively) are also business partners. And this week, their firm, MARS Bioimaging, revealed a first-of-its-kind X-ray scanner 10 years in the making.

color xray wrist with watch
A 3D image of a wrist with a watch showing part of the finger bones in white and soft tissue in red. (Source: MARS Bioimaging Ltd)

First, a fast recap of how x-ray imaging works. When x-rays travel through your body, they are absorbed by denser materials (bones) and pass right through softer ones (muscles and other tissues). The x-rays that go through unobstructed hit a film on the opposite side of your body. These appear as areas of solid black. The locations where the x-rays could not go through appear strong white.

color xray 1

IN LIVING COLOR

Back to the Butlers’ invention. Their scanner utilizes a combination of Medipix tech — technology initially established to assist scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) track particles utilizing the Large Hadron Collider — and computer algorithms to produce colourful, 3D X-rays.

Instead of recording the X-rays as either passing right through the body or getting absorbed by the bone, this scanner records the exact energy levels of the x-rays as they strike each particle in your body. It then translates those measurements into various colors representing your bones, muscles, and other tissues.

View of Right Ankle color xray
View of Right Ankle using Color Xray

BETTER DIAGNOSTICS. While the flat black-and-white x-rays physicians presently use are generally enough for them to discover if the bone in your arm has a fracture, they reveal hardly anything about the tissue and muscle surrounding that bone. Medical professionals could utilize these new 3D x-rays to help detect problems in the bone and everything around it, too.

” This innovation sets the machine apart diagnostically since its small pixels and precise energy resolution mean that this new imaging tool is able to get images that no other imaging tool can achieve,” Phil Butler said in a CERN press release.

color xray ankle 360
360 View using colored X-ray

TESTING AND MORE TESTING

The MARS scanner is currently in use for a variety of research studies, including some focused on strokes and cancer. As Anthony Butler informed CERN, “In all of these studies, promising early results suggest that when spectral imaging is regularly used in clinics it will allow more precise diagnosis and personalization of treatment.”

Next, the scientists plans to test out their scanner in a trial focused on orthopedic and rheumatology patients in New Zealand. Even if all goes well with that trial, however, it could still be years before the gadget secures the regulatory approval it would require for its usage to become widespread.

LEARN MORE: First 3D Colour X-Ray of a Human Using CERN Technology