The world’s brightest x-rays reveal COVID-19 damage to the body!

on . Posted in Articles of Interest

GRENOBLE, France (PNN) - December 31, 2022 - When Paul Tafforeau saw his first experimental scans of a COVID-19 victim’s lung, he thought he had failed. A paleontologist by training, Tafforeau had been laboring with a team strewn across Europe for months to turn a particle accelerator in the French Alps into a revolutionary medical scanning tool.

It was the end of May 2020, and scientists were anxious for a better view of the ways human organs were being ravaged by COVID-19. Tafforeau had been tasked with developing a technique that could make use of the powerful x-rays generated at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France. He’d pushed boundaries on high-resolution x-rays of rock-hard fossils and desiccated mummies as an ESRF staff scientist. Now, he was dismayed by a lump of soft, squishy tissue.

But when his colleagues caught their first glimpse of the lung scans, they felt something else: awe.

The images presented them with richer detail than any medical CT scan they’d seen before, allowing them to bridge a stubborn gap in how scientists and doctors can visualize - and make sense of - human organs. “In anatomy textbooks, when you see, this is the large scale, and this is the smaller one, they’re all beautiful hand-drawn images for a reason: they’re artistic interpretations because we have no images for it,” says Claire Walsh, a senior postdoctoral fellow at University College London (UCL).

“For the first time, we can make the real thing,” said Walsh.

Tafforeau and Walsh are part of an international team of more than 30 researchers that has created a powerful new kind of x-ray scan called hierarchical phase-contrast tomography (HiP-CT). With it, they can finally go from a complete human organ to a zoomed-in view of the body’s tiniest blood vessels and even individual cells.

The technique is already providing fresh insights into how COVID-19 damages and reshapes the blood vessels of the lungs, and while its long-term promise is hard to define, because nothing quite like HiP-CT has ever existed, researchers excited by its potential are enthusiastically dreaming up new ways to understand disease and more rigorously chart the terrains of human anatomy.

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