A New Zealand company has produced the world's first 3D colour X-rays of living human body parts.
The technology, known as spectral molecular imaging (SMI), can differentiate between materials in the body that look the same under conventional computed tomography (CT) scans, and produces remarkably detailed images.
Materials such as calcium, iodine, and gold all have the same Hounsfield value (density) under normal CT scans, so clinicians can't tell them apart.
SMI can read the subtle differences in density between these materials. The matter that appears in the scan (such as bone, fat, and water) are then differentiated with colour, making them easy to read.
Normal CT scans have a spatial resolution of approximately 300 microns, whereas SMI has a resolution of 90 microns. This means the scans have extremely high image quality that can capture details as small as the width of a human hair.
SMI uses the world's most advanced photon-counting detector (a detector that can gather information about individual light-transmitting cells).
The detector was developed at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider.
Using this detector, the scan can achieve an extremely high level of specificity compared to traditional X-ray and CT scans.
These live human scans were performed at MARS Bioimaging (MBI), a manufacturer of small spectral CT scanners for medical research, headed by professor Phil Butler, a physics researcher and radiologist.
The technology has potential for a range of medical applications from cancer diagnostics and treatment, to imaging of nerves, the cardiovascular system, the muscular and skeletal system, and the endocrine system.
SMI also requires a low radiation dose compared to CT scans (which can expose patients having a chest scan to radiation equivalent to 100 X-rays).
This means researchers can perform long studies on the same subject and scan them repeatedly without fear of dangerous radiation exposure.
A 2014 paper on SMI stated it could be used to personalise cancer treatment by measuring the amount of a chemotherapy drug entering a tumour and assessing a patient's response non-invasively.
While this imaging technique has been used in the past with dead tissue samples of small animals, MBI is the first company to adapt the technique for live human tissue.
In fact, the ankle used for these scans belongs to Butler.
Before the live human scans were performed, the technology had to be developed so that the SMI did not take an uncomfortably long amount of time for patients.
Butler told BuzzFeed News that the software to process the datasets for these high-quality images from the photon-counting detector and display them has only recently become available.
"The heel dataset was something like 30 gigabytes whereas your standard iPhone images are only 10 megabytes".
While the technology has so far only been used for smaller body parts such as ankles and wrists, Butler says they will be able to scan larger sections of the human body including "the abdomen, hips, and shoulders".
The company currently has a small scanner but is developing a full human-scale machine for commercial release.