The evolution of medical imaging – where will innovation take us next?

The influence of medical imaging is constantly growing, diseases are detected earlier and treatments are becoming more effective. Within the last 25 years, cancer mortality rates have decreased by an impressive 25%. Advances in medical imaging have a big part to play in this achievement and we can expect that as technology continues to develop, mortality rates will drop even further.  

Small beginnings that led to a big discovery

In 1895 Wilhelm Röntgen accidentally discovered the X-ray. The initial discovery was an ionising radiation which he labelled ‘X’ to signify the unknown; the first ever X-ray was taken of his wife’s hand. Soon after, in 1896 Siemens created the first industrially manufactured X-ray tubes used for diagnostic imaging.

Marie Curie later made a step forward by isolating radium in the late 1890s when she noticed that diseased tumour cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells when exposed to radiation. Radiation was perceived as a ‘silver bullet’ the world of medicine, with doctors using high doses for diseases they did not understand. Because of this, in the early 20th century, it is believed radiation may have caused more cancer than it cured.

Advancing medical imaging into the digital age

After World War II, German and American scientists from Siemens and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed radiation-free ultrasound technology that could look inside a patient, without the harmful implications.

Imaging continued to advance in the 1950s as scientists discovered they could locate breast cancer by taking an X-ray of the breast, later named a mammogram. Scientists began screening healthy women for the first signs of breast cancer, realising that catching the cancer at an early stage could ultimately save a patient’s life.

Stepping forward to the early 1970s, the information age was in its infancy and there was a push for more efficient equipment. In 1967, Sir Godfrey Hounsfield, an electrical engineer, developed the computed tomography (CT) system by marrying a computer with X-ray. In 1971, his team scanned their first brain tumour patient by using X-ray ‘slices’ to reconstruct the brain. In total, this took nine hours to photograph, with a further 27 hours to reconstruct the image.

When using the CT scanner, one technician unintentionally used the wrong dose settings, but found that the results were the same using low dose as when using a high dose for certain practices. This led to a breakthrough in lung cancer screenings, which proved to decrease mortality rates by 20% by using just 10% of the usual radiation dose.

The introduction of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) further advanced the ability to capture medical images using alternative methods. With MRI, scientists were able to align the nuclei of atoms and cause them to resonate to produce their own magnetic field that a scanner detects, capturing detailed images of soft tissue and the nervous system.

What does the future hold for medical imaging?

The face of medical imaging has transformed since 1896 with enhanced applications providing scientists and clinicians the ability to capture clear images, at the right dose in minimal time. In the future we expect many important growth drivers within medical imaging. These will include the miniaturisation and portability of equipment, the digitisation of measurement values, hybrid imaging systems and the use of non-ionising imaging modalities such as optical and ultrasound systems.

To find out more on the evolution of medical imaging technology, Siemens Healthineers has developed an insightful documentary discussing its ongoing role in detection, diagnosis and treatment.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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