Dark-field x-rays hold hope for breast cancer diagnosis

In collaboration with the Press Association

Scientists have found a way to generate clearer, more revealing images of body tissue using standard x-ray equipment.

The advance, which was made by researchers at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) and the EPFL in Switzerland, could be used to detect the onset of breast cancer by highlighting subtle changes in the tissue of the breast.

Mammography - x-ray imaging of the breast - is the cornerstone of the NHS breast screening programme.

The new method produces dark-field x-ray images, which show the scattering of radiation within materials and provide more detail than ordinary x-rays.

Because cancer cells scatter radiation differently to healthy tissue, this can be picked up using the technique.

Franz Pfeiffer, a professor at EPFL and researcher at the PSI, revealed: "Researchers have been working on dark-field x-ray images for many years.

"Up until now these images have only been possible using sophisticated crystal optical elements."

However, the professor noted that crystal optics are inefficient as they only work for a single x-ray wavelength.

Christian David, another researcher at PSI, explained: "Our new technique uses novel x-ray optical components, in the form of nanostructured gratings, that permit the use of a broad energy spectrum, including the standard range of energies in traditional x-ray equipment used in hospitals or airports.

"This opens up the possibility for adapting current imaging equipment to include dark-field imaging."

The technique, which is detailed in Nature Materials, could also be used to diagnose changes in bone density that might signal osteoporosis, as well as plaques in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease.