In Part 3, we learned how computers are revolutionizing medical imaging with detailed three-dimensional scans.
Radiology has been around since Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays in 1895. The technology has allowed doctors to peer into the living human body in search of foreign objects, injuries, malformations, and the evidence of disease.
Radiology has empowered physicians to make faster, more accurate diagnoses, to construct informed treatment plans, and to plan surgeries and other treatments in a more informed way. The injuries healed, the diseases cured, the suffering eased, are impossible to calculate. The lives saved are surely in the millions.
What’s Past is Prelude
Yet all of that is just a beginning. Researchers armed with the latest imaging equipment and powerful computers are poised to usher in a new world. Radiology is playing a key role in redefining the way medicine will work in the 21st century.
Today’s radiologists routinely deal with ultrasound, nuclear radiology, fluoroscopy, X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, body imaging, musculoskeletal radiology, breast imaging, chest and cardiovascular imaging, and other technologies. In the next few years, hospital, medical centers, clinics, labs, and private physicians will have access to new systems that combine and enhance these technologies with the aid of sophisticated computer imaging software.
Enhancing CT Scans
The revolution really started with the introduction of CT scanning in 1971. CT scans, remember, are three-dimensional images of internal organs and systems constructed from hundreds of two-dimensional images that are combined and manipulated on the computer screen. For the first time, physicians were able to study three-dimensional images of the injuries and illnesses that affected their patients.
Before long, doctors realized that CT technology could be used for more than imaging. Because it combined a source of electromagnetic radiation with a highly accurate view of the patient’s body, a modified CT scanner could deliver doses of radiation directly to cancerous tissues. When properly tuned using a technique called intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), this technology can deliver radiation to tumors while sparing surrounding organs and other tissues – more precisely than any other delivery method, and without the need for surgery. Brain tumors, encased in the bone case of the skull, have become accessible to oncologists.
Ongoing incremental improvement in CT technology is leading to reductions in the required dosage of radiation required for imaging and an improvement in image quality. Every year, images are more detailed and accurate due to advances in CT scanning hardware and the software that constructs images.
Experts are also working on extending scanning technology down to the molecular level. Highly precise images of molecular structures hold promise as key to early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, specific cancers, and other elusive diseases. PET scanning holds promise as a foundation for these developments.
In addition to diagnosing cancer earlier, enhanced imaging techniques will provide visibility into tumors over time as they respond or resist treatment. Oncologists will be better prepared to fine-tune their treatment strategies with detailed, accurate images from these advanced scanners.
The Power of Computers
The use of computers to process, archive, and share imaging data may have a profound effect on medical practices and outcomes. Where physicians once studied X-rays on their way into the operating suite and counted on memory to direct them during operations, today’s doctors have access to displays that present updated imagery. Under software control, real-time images of the patient can be combined during the procedure with images created earlier, resulting in a detailed three-dimensional map for surgeons.
Radiological scanners are getting smaller, less expensive, faster, and more precise. Already, advanced scanners are able to acquire and process data fast enough to display three-dimensional images of beating hearts. Where previous decades saw scanning move from two-dimensional images to three-dimensional models, the decades to come will see complex visualizations generated in real-time. With appropriate software filters for texture and color, these systems will provide virtual models that are nearly indistinguishable from live patients.
Sets of images that are taken days or weeks apart can tell physicians much about the progression of a cancer or other disease, especially when software is used to combine the images into an animation that shows changes over time. When disease-progression scans from hundreds or thousands of patients are
combined, doctors will have new insights into how cancers and other diseases grow and change over time.
And On to the Future
Countless other enhanced technologies are under development in research labs around the world. In the years to come we can look forward to real revolutions in radiography in such fields as enhanced data acquisition, the integration of medical systems to share data, more interactivity in image manipulation, medical simulations, hyper-realism, virtual reality, and other technologies that are, today, literally unimaginable.
What’s most striking about all of this, perhaps, is how quickly and clearly the medical profession grasped the usefulness and importance of Roentgen’s breakthrough, and how consistently researchers have worked together to make radiology an even more powerful tool. Given the hundred-plus years of innovation that have led us to today’s powerful imaging tools, the only certain thing we can say about future developments is that they will continue to empower doctors and save lives.