University of Saskatchewan

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October 21, 2008

X-ray technology gets a 21st century make-over

October 14, 2008

By Ashleigh Mattern

University of Saskatchewan student Joel Frey went into electrical engineering because of an interest in guitars and amplifiers. He even had plans to design his own.

Then, in his fourth year of undergraduate studies, he was diagnosed with Crohn's disease and the course of his studies took a drastic change.

"I didn't want to be one of those guys working on cell phone towers that help people a little bit,” said Frey. “I wanted to do something that would help people like me — people who really needed the help."

A colonoscopy, the method currently used to diagnose Crohn's disease, is painful and invasive. With a new interest in the advancements in virtual colonoscopy, Frey started to get excited about digital imagery. His inquiries around the engineering department led him to Safa Kasap.

Kasap is a Canada Research Chair in electronic materials and devices. His work revolves around improving detectors for digital imaging with in X-rays, particularly for mammography. He has been involved with the new technology since its earliest stages.

Surprisingly in this wireless, digital age, most X-ray technology still uses a film processing system. Improvements in the field of digital X-rays will make diagnoses faster, safer and more accurate — it is already being used successfully with mammograms, said Frey. Updating the technology from film to digital will finally bring X-rays into the 21st century.

“The work we’re doing will improve health care through better X-ray imaging,” said Kasap. “It will also improve Canada’s high-tech competitiveness by doing state-of-the-art industrially sponsored research.”

Kasap and his team work with Anrad Corp. out of Montreal, Que. Funding for the project comes from a combination of Kasap’s position as a Canada Research Chair and jointly from the Anrad Corp. and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada from its partnership programs.

Frey's job, along with fellow student researcher Isha Dash, is to improve and test the photoconductor used in digital mammography.

Improving image quality is an integral part of Frey and Dash's work. An improved image would mean earlier and easier diagnosis of breast cancer and could lead to widening the scope of the technology to other types of X-ray imaging.

At present, the image quality is only slightly better than the traditional film system but taking a digital image is much faster, Frey said.

This means lower doses of radiation for the patient, less money spent on printing processes, less time spent waiting for images to be developed and less storage space used. Though image quality has yet to be perfected, the extra time saved in the process could improve detection rates.

Competition in the field is fierce. There are five companies, based out of Canada, the U.S. and Japan, trying to create direct conversion digital X-rays with the highest and best resolution. Kasap said no one else in Canada is on par with the research they are doing on the photoconductor.

Currently, a battle is on between direct and indirect conversion. Frey is working on a direct conversion model, meaning X-rays are converted directly to an electrical signal for digital images. While this is the most efficient option in principle, Frey said the competition can be compared to the recent HD/Blu-ray war in DVDs. Both methods have pros and cons but in the end it depends on which type manufacturers decide to produce and cost savings.

The photoconductor uses a selenium-based alloy and Frey's work focuses on the properties of selenium. While the selenium alloy works well with smaller doses of radiation, such as the amount used with a mammogram, it can still behave strangely under higher amounts. Part of Frey’s job is to find out what causes this behaviour and how it can be fixed.

Dash works with Frey on the photoconductor but her work focuses on the length of time it takes to record the image. She is conducting experiments that will help develop an effective way for Anrad to test the performance of the photoconductor and ensure quality control in its production.

"I’m definitely excited about it," Dash said. "Especially since you see the applications are so practical . . . and it directly involves helping people.”

Ashleigh Mattern is a student writer for the U of S research communications office. Visit www.usask/research for more stories of student research.

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