Scientists Develop World's First Color 3D X-rays

X-rays, color
A 3D color image of a human ankle, which details the bone, shown in white, the muscle and connective tissue in red and even the protective layer of fat, shown in yellow, under the heel. MARS Bioimaging Ltd.

If you've ever tried to make sense of a conventional X-ray image shown to you by a doctor, you know how inscrutable those murky, mysterious black-and-white images can be. But someday soon, conventional X-rays may be replaced by a device that can produce highly detailed 3D color pictures of what's going on inside the human body.

The new device, the MARS x-ray scanner, uses Medipix imaging technology originally developed at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. As this CERN media release explains, Medipix actually detects and counts each individual particle hitting the pixels when its electronic shutter is open, enabling the creation of high-contrast, super-accurate images. The technology was developed to help track particles at the Large Hadron Collider, but over the past 20 years, successive generations of the chips have shown promise for other applications outside of high-energy physics.


The scanner's maker, New Zealand-based Mars Bioimaging has coupled Medipix technology with algorithms that use information from the X-ray to generate color 3D images, enabling the device to separate into layers different parts of human tissue, such as fat and bone. As this CNET article details, the scans look like 3D cross sections from some vividly realistic anatomical model with peel-away skin, and contain a wealth of information not available in conventional scans, such as calcium, water and disease markers.

Father and son scientists Phil and Anthony Butler, who invented the scanner, first tested it by scanning Phil Butler's ankle and wrist, according to this University of Canterbury press release. Though no word yet on a timetable, the next step in the device's development will be clinical trials involving orthopedic and rheumatology patients.