Medical breakthroughs in the 21st century have opened many new exciting possibilities with the potential to save millions of lives. But this is not the case in one sector: medical imaging. In comparison to other high-tech medical devices and surgeries, a huge gap still exists in the medical imaging industry. Though approximately 80% of the diagnostic problems can be resolved by medical images like X-rays, two-thirds of the world’s population has no meaningful access to medical imaging . The majority of the population patiently waiting to undergo medical imaging suffers from weeks to months just to get access to diagnostic results. Furthermore, in developing countries, the cost is prohibitive. How can we solve this crisis?
To start from the beginning, the conventional X-ray that is used in most hospitals nowadays comes from a technology developed 126 years ago. X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths ranging from 0.01 to 10 nanometers. The generation of X-rays occurs when electrons are accelerated and converted to electromagnetic radiation . However, to accelerate these electrons, a cathode filament must be intensely heated . Since multiple images are taken by the X-rays and each image requires substantial electromagnetic radiation, the patient may suffer serious health consequences due to the high radiation exposure. Studies have shown that high radiation exposure in a short time span can cause acute radiation syndrome and has a correlation with increased cancer risk .
Thankfully, bright-minded biomedical engineers have come up with brilliant ways to tackle this problem. Nanoscale X-ray imaging uses a cold cathode technology implemented in a silicon chip. Here, a cold cathode attracts electrons from the metal by applying an electric field instead of large amounts of heat caused by electron beams . These nanoscale electrons are induced in a single chip that is approximately one square centimeter in size.
In the medical imaging industry, nanoscale X-ray imaging provides several desirable benefits. First, the picture itself created by X-rays is much clearer due to the nanoscale size of electrons. Each infinitesimal electron beam formulates a higher resolution by analyzing a thinner layer of a 3D model than a traditional X-ray. This allows doctors and medical professionals to better diagnose diseases. The cost is also significantly reduced as expensive equipment like vacuum tubes are not required. In addition to the lower cost, the smaller size makes X-ray imaging devices portable so they can be installed anywhere in the world. This trait would be especially beneficial for developing countries where medical facilities are not well established. With greater portability and accessibility, medical imaging can now be widely available to developing countries, significantly narrowing the imaging disparities. Furthermore, by lowering the patients’ exposure to the radiation, the new technology can also prevent many negative side-effects of X-rays on the patients’ health.
Nanoscale imaging can be applied to a broad range of fields not just pertinent to life sciences, but also to physical and material sciences. With further innovation and development, I believe nanoscale imaging has the potential to save millions of lives around the globe, providing greater medical access to those in need in developing countries in the near future.
Mitchell, C. (2012, November 7). World Radiography Day: Two-Third of the World’s Population has no Access to Diagnostic Imaging. Pan American Health Organization / World Health Organization. https://www3.paho.org/hq/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7410:2012-dia-radiografia-dos-tercios-poblacion-mundial-no-tiene-acceso-diagnostico-imagen&Itemid=1926&lang=en
Tafti, D., & Maani, C. V. (2021). X-ray Production. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.
McCollough C. H. (1997). The AAPM/RSNA physics tutorial for residents. X-ray production. Radiographics : a review publication of the Radiological Society of North America, Inc, Vol.17(4), 967–984. https://doi.org/10.1148/radiographics.17.4.9225393
Kang J., Hong J., Park K. (2018). High-performance carbon-nanotube-based cold cathode electron beam with low-thermal-expansion gate electrode. Journal of Vacuum Science & Technology, Vol. 36(2). https://doi.org/10.1116/1.5005025
Radiation Health Effects. (2021, April 14). US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/radiation/radiation-health-effects