University of Saskatchewan

September 20, 2014   

Tracking Disease with X-Ray Vision

Photo of Brian Bewer by Robby Davis
November 27, 2009

By Lisa Johnson

University of Saskatchewan physics PhD student Brian Bewer has developed new imaging technology that will enable medical researchers to look at disease in live subjects without blurring and with greater tissue clarity than ever before.

Using the super bright light from the Canadian Light Source synchrotron (CLS), Bewer’s rapid-scanning imaging will resolve some of the blurring caused by motion in X-ray imaging, enabling researchers to capture high-resolution images of live subjects from mice to llamas.

Bewer has been working on this technique for three years. He is currently working with the U of S industry liaison office on a review to assess patent protection and commercialization opportunities including scaling down the technology into a tabletop machine that could give doctors another tool to assess soft tissue injuries and diseases.

“This will give us a capability that no other synchrotron has in the world, making our biomedical imaging and therapy (BMIT) beamline unique,” says Bewer’s supervisor Dean Chapman.

Bewer’s work builds on groundbreaking Diffraction Enhanced Imaging (DEI) technology, developed in part by Chapman, Canada Research Chair in X-ray Imaging, who heads up BMIT.

DEI imaging detects subtle differences, not usually visible with conventional X-rays, in soft tissue including cancer tissues. Placed side-by-side with a conventional X-ray image, a diffraction-enhanced image shows dramatically improved contrast.

Since DEI imaging uses a low dose of intense light, it is an improvement in safety as well, emitting up to 100 times less radiation. In one experiment, seven exposures emitted radiation equivalent to the exposure of one mammogram, says Chapman.

But DEI technology alone does not alleviate the distortion caused by motion.

To do that, Bewer has merged the DEI technique with a method of rapid-scanning X-ray fluorescence also used by Helen Nichol, a U of S neuroscientist who looks at metals and chemicals in the brain.

The advance in technology means that researchers will be able to see the progression of diseases including arthritis, osteoporosis, heart disease, and cancer, and monitor the effectiveness of treatments.

The technology has huge implications for the medical research community, says Bewer. Chapman says Bewer’s technique is “like a hammer—it can be adapted to many different purposes.” For example, one research group studying gene expression mapping will be able to look at genes linked to growth, development, and disease in live animals.

But Bewer is quick to acknowledge that what he does on the synchrotron beamline is the “furthest thing from medicine.”

At the CLS, electrons are accelerated to nearly the speed of light through powerful magnets and radio frequency waves. The resulting particle beam is shone down specialized beamlines to rooms called endstations, small laboratories where scientists look at tiny particles of matter.

Bewer spends most of his time in the beamline’s endstation working with sophisticated equipment. The work is similar to “your dentist taking an oral X-ray,” he says, adding “I leave the room, close it, take pictures, and come back.”

Bewer’s work is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Canada Research Chairs program.

In operation since last December, BMIT has already been used to image the joints of live animals to help correct lameness.

“In conventional pathology, you have to cut up tissues, stain them, put them on a slide, and then look at them,” explains Chapman. With BMIT, imaging is non-destructive.

Chapman hopes that the rapid-scanning technology will be ready for use on BMIT within the next year.

Gregg Adams, a U of S professor of veterinary medicine who relies on Bewer’s expertise to image prostate cancer tissues, says Bewer is one of only three people who can operate the BMIT beamline.

Adams says Bewer’s work will ultimately help medical researchers “explore a whole new world.”


Lisa Johnson is a graduate student intern for the U of S research communications office. Visit www.usask/research for more stories of student research.

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