A new X-ray technique for detecting explosives could also identify tumors

While the most obvious application is searching for bombs, items and other dangerous materials at airports, the results described in Nature Communications Today, it can also help detect cracks and rust in buildings, and eventually identify tumors in their early stages.

A team of researchers from UCL stashed small amounts of explosives, including Semtex and C4, inside electrical items, such as laptop computers, hair dryers, and cell phones. The items were placed inside bags containing toothbrushes, chargers, paracetamol and other everyday items to closely replicate the traveler’s bag.

As standard X-ray machines hit objects with a uniform field of X-rays, the team scanned the bags with a dedicated X-ray scanner that had masks — perforated metal sheets inside, which separate the beams into a group of tiny beams.

As the bundles passed through the bag and its contents, they were scattered at angles as small as microradians (about 20,000 times smaller than a degree). of angle changes.

Lead author Sandro Olivo, of the University of California in Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, says AI is exceptionally good at capturing the textures of these materials, even when they are hidden inside other objects. “Even if we hid a small amount of explosive somewhere, because there would be a little texture in the middle of many other things, the algorithm would find it.”

The algorithm was able to correctly identify explosives in each experiment conducted under the test conditions, although the team acknowledged that it would be unrealistic to expect such a high level of accuracy in larger future studies that closely resemble real-world conditions.

The team believes the technology could be used in medical applications as well, particularly in cancer screening. Although Olivo and his team have yet to test whether the technique can successfully distinguish between tumor tissue and surrounding healthy breast tissue, for example, they are excited about the possibility of detecting very small, previously undetected tumors behind a patient’s rib cage. .

“I’d love to do it one day,” he adds. “If we get a similar incidence rate in detecting tumor tissue, the potential for early diagnosis is enormous.”

But the human body is a much more difficult environment to scan than stationary air-filled objects such as bags, notes Kevin Wells, associate professor at the University of Surrey, who was not involved in the study. In addition, researchers will need to reduce the size of the bulky equipment and ensure that the examination cost is equivalent to current technologies before it is considered a potential screening method for humans.

“What’s being presented here looks very promising,” he says. “I think it has great potential for certain types of threat detection, crack detection.”

“For a medical application of the cancerous type, it is a possibility, but there are some steps that must be taken before you can demonstrate efficacy in a clinical context.”

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