Smart Thinkers: the father and son revolutionising X-rays with 3D tech


Smart Thinkers: the father and son revolutionising X-rays with 3D tech
A father-and-son team of scientists are making waves with their revolutionary 3D X-ray technology.

For most of us, family discussions on vacation might centre around how the weather will affect the day’s planned activities, which books we’ve brought to read on the beach or dodging awkward questions about our personal lives. But for Phil Butler and son Anthony Butler, a holiday together saw them come up with an idea that could revolutionise the diagnosis of medical conditions.

The pair from Christchurch have invented a 3D medical scanner which produces remarkably clear colour images from inside the human body. During a trip to Croatia, the Butlers were discussing technology that had first been developed for detectors at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) to research the universe’s fundamental particles, and had been adapted to detect X-ray photons.

“Dad was telling me about these new detectors and we came to the conclusion that they really needed to be taken through to hospitals or clinics,” says Anthony.

Together they had the perfect knowledge to bring the idea to fruition – Phil, a professor at the University of Canterbury, has had an extensive research career in physics and a long involvement with CERN. Meanwhile, Anthony is a radiologist, a professor at both the universities of Otago and Canterbury, and an engineer for CERN.

In 2007 they founded MARS Bioimaging Ltd (MBI) to commercialise the cutting-edge photon-counting CT (computed tomography) tech and develop new preclinical and clinical applications. The MARS scanner measures the X-ray spectrum to produce 3D colour images that show details of various tissues such as bones, fats, water, cartilage and disease markers.

“It’s a 3D X-ray system that provides all of the information you get from CT, some of the information you get from MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), and some of the information you get from a PET (positron emission tomography). And we do that at a low radiation dose,” says Anthony. “We do it in a way that we believe can be put into community clinics like after-hours practices and GPs, which is pretty challenging for an MRI or a PET scanner.”

Developing the scanners and software to introduce the tech to clinics was one thing, but determining the applications for spectral imaging has required a lot more research. “It’s all very well to say, ‘I’ve got a new machine’, but is it going to be useful for cancer? Is it going to be useful for heart disease?” says Anthony. “We’ve had to do some fundamental research into that and we’ve actually been selling machines to researchers to do that for us.”

Recent examples of research by other institutions using the MARS system include a study by The Chinese University of Hong Kong, which shows how MARS CT imaging can detect knee arthroplasty implant failure not detected by standard pre-operative imaging techniques.

The separate University of Hong Kong has also completed a study on dental applications for the technology, which found that the MARS tech could be used to detect small anatomical structures in teeth and reduce metal artefacts (visual anomalies) caused by dental implants. Other health conditions MARS is likely to help diagnose include cancer, cardiovascular disease and infectious disease.

The many potential applications for the technology meant Phil and Anthony had the challenging task of deciding which condition they should prioritise for the first ‘real-world’ clinical trials. They went with wrist injuries, which are common yet challenging to diagnose and expensive to treat.

A portable wrist scanner is being trialled in clinics in both New Zealand and Switzerland. “We’re working with a couple of groups to show that we can see those injuries in the wrist earlier than we would in X-rays,” says Anthony. “We get the same sort of information that perhaps you get from an MRI, but an MRI usually has a two-week waiting list and costs several thousand dollars. So one of our machines in an after- hours emergency practice could save people weeks of waiting and therefore save the ACC lots of money as well.”

Phil and Anthony are full of praise for their diverse group of colleagues at MBI. “It’s a really broad, interesting team – we’re working with mathematicians, electrical engineers, biochemists, pathologists, surgeons – so it’s fantastic,” says Anthony.

MBI has about 30 full-time employees and another 10 part-time interns completing their PhDs. “Over the years we’ve taken on quite a large number of PhD students, we’ve taken on smaller numbers of master’s thesis students and undergraduate students for short periods including from all around the world,” says Phil.

“A large number of the people who’ve gone through that PhD training have been sufficiently excited by the project to want to stay on as an employee. Most of our employees have in fact come through that group, so we’ve been doing a lot to upskill the New Zealand population in terms of world-leading medical-imaging technologies.”

Those who have moved on from MBI remain a source of pride for Anthony and Phil. “We’ve graduated 30 students so far, people who have completed their PhD,” says Anthony. “So I’m actually quite proud of what that does to a city; when you have 30 people coming out with a PhD in medical imaging over 15 years, you are basically creating an industry. Not all have stayed with us, but there’s a whole lot of people who know how to do medical imaging that didn’t.”

At the heart of it all, of course, is the father-and-son team who hope to improve healthcare across the world. Finding a project that allowed them to bring together their research interests is not only helping to improve medical diagnosis, it has also been a pleasure for the pair to work together.

“There are an awful lot of family businesses in the world and I think there’s a reason for that,” says Anthony.

“It’s primarily because when you work with someone who’s a family member, you have a different level of trust than with a stranger. In any organisation, the people running it need to trust each other. And I think family helps with that.”


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