New generation of programmable chips set to revolutionise medical industry

An engineer at the University of Sheffield is leading a £4.5m project that could revolutionize the way scientists, medics and others see the world – by allowing the earlier detection of cancer, the instant analysis of medical screening tests, and permitting the emergency and security services to work effectively in murky surroundings. It will also open up broad tracts of science to unique high-quality imaging by enabling physicists to understand better the most fundamental interactions of matter, by providing better pictures from space, and probing in unprecedented detail the dynamics inside living cells.

The MI-3 project is focussing on developing and exploiting a new generation of programmable chips that will produce images that can be transformed even before they leave the camera. Active Pixel Sensors exploit the capabilities of Complimentary Metal Oxide Semi-Conductor (CMOS) Chips by allowing intelligent imaging that can focus right down to individual pixels. This project will also allow experts to view non-visible light, such as high-energy particles and x-rays and beyond to the ultra-violet spectrum and into the infra-red. The MI-3 project is part of the UK Research Councils Basic Technology Initiative and is a multi-disciplinary research group.

Professor Nigel Allinson from the University of Sheffield is leading this study. He explains, “The imaging technology in products like digital cameras and camcorders are called Charged Coupled Devices (CCD). They are great for what they do, but they are expensive and slow. Disposal applications, such as medical screening, need inexpensive technology. Also with CCDs you can only control the quality of an image by varying the exposure time and the aperture - much as you do with a normal film camera. With APS devices, the device itself can control read-out and each individual part of the image is treated. For example, you can choose to look only at a specific part of an image in detail, rather than exposing the whole picture and then trying to zoom in to an interesting region.

“The potential practical applications for this research are huge”, explains Professor Allinson. “Our research teams are working on several applications, including developing a new method for imaging mammograms, which reduces the X-ray dose needed to produce a good image. The transistors in the CMOS chips can be programmed to ensure that the patient is exposed to the smallest possible dose.

“This particular application could be in use in as little as two years. In four to five years we may be able to use APS chips to provide bedside diagnostic tools that will detect cancer at the earliest possible stages, being easier and faster than current body scanners.

“APS cameras are able to cope with images that have high contrast and this is important for scenes taken in adverse conditions. We already have unique technology for seeing through fog and smoke – of course, this not only benefits firemen and search and rescue teams but many areas of security.

”These are just some of the applications for this technology and we are excited to be involved in the development of such an exciting new range of devices.”

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