latest medical imaging technology, with its origins in the work of Nobel
Prize winner Georges Charpak, has been used to develop a diagnostic camera
that can visualise soft tissue with very high resolution and in real time.
If all goes well, the camera should become an accepted part of every hospital's
armoury against heart disease and brain tumours within a few years. Not
only will this benefit patients, it also offers the prospect of reducing
the amount of animal testing needed in the development of new drugs, a
controversial issue of increasing public concern.
problems such as blocked coronary arteries, faulty valves inside the heart
or abnormalities in other organs, has always been difficult because details
of soft tissue do not show up well using most imaging techniques. X-rays
only reveal hard structures such as bone, while sophisticated scanning
methods such as computer tomography or magnetic resonance imaging provide
only a freeze-frame image of the organ at one particular time.
physicians can either use invasive procedures that involve passing catheters
into major blood vessels and then into the heart, or they can use a crystal
camera and radioactive tracers. These are effective but unpleasant procedures
that carry a significant risk and always involve a stay in hospital.
camera that can look inside the body and give good images of the
internal organs may have once belonged to the realms of cartoon
animators, but is now well on its way to becoming reality.
European partners, the French company Biospace,
originally founded by Nobel Prize winner Georges Charpak to link
physics research with biomedical applications, has been developing
a gamma camera, a device that can visualise the activity of the
heart in real time using low doses of radiation. The detector within
the camera can measure ultra-low levels of radiation and uses the
latest technology to convert the signals it receives into clear,
real-time pictures. The heart can be tested both at rest and during
exertion, without the need for catheterisation.
fully developed, the camera will give an accurate image of internal
organs during a short, out-patient visit to the clinic," says
Biospace's Marie Meynadier, who co-ordinated the research project
set up to develop the camera commercially.
potential of the gamma camera is something we have known about for
some time, but, as an SME, we needed to share research costs with
like-minded partners," explains Ms Meynadier. "So, in
combination with two SMEs from Britain and Italy, and French and
Italian research bodies, we applied for, and were awarded, CRAFT
funding. Working with our partners, we have now completed the first
phase of the project. We have working prototype cameras that are
ready for testing."
crucial second phase of the project started at the beginning of
2000 and the partners expect to produce a fully tested prototype
ready for full market development within the next three years.
gamma camera uses the radioactive tracer tantalum, which has a very
short half-life compared with current medical tracers and so is
much safer. However, before the technology can progress to allow
clinical trials to be completed, the tantalum tracer chemistry must
be developed further and this is a key area of research in the on-going
second phase of the project.
advantage of working in a partnership is that the individual skills
of each partner company can be put to the best use possible,"
says Ms Meynadier. She confirms that the project has enabled technology
transfer between the partners, all of which have extended their
technical know-how. "Working together has allowed us to carry
out a project that would have been impossible for any individual
partner," she adds.
of the first prototype cameras during the first phase of development
was co-ordinated by Biospace, but this role will now be taken over
by Costruzioni Apparecchiature
Elettroniche Nucleari (CAEN), the Italian microelectronics expert
in the partnership. Hamilton & Hamilton the UK partner, will
oversee the tantalum development work, which will take place in
England and Italy.
the next year or so, Biospace will co-ordinate clinical trials with
an alternative, already commonly used radioactive tracer. Clinical
trials in human volunteers started in April 2000.
studies are essential, even before the tantalum tracer can be used,
to show that the cameras can work in hospital conditions and that
they are equal to or better than currently used diagnostic methods,"
explains Ms Meynadier.
The equipment will need to be very robust to cope with the demands
of a busy hospital but several doctors in major European hospitals
have already expressed serious interest in using the camera, not
only for cardiac applications, but also to visualise the exact position
of brain tumours before and after surgery.
images, bigger markets
the clinical trials go well, the market for the final camera could
be substantial, but Biospace and its partners are also following
up other applications of the gamma camera. These do not depend on
human trials and could have a potentially even wider market.
resolution of the camera is extremely fine. So fine that it can
resolve the much smaller structures within a rodent heart,"
says Ms Meynadier. This suggests that the camera would also be of
value in small animal studies, such as those carried out by the
pharmaceutical industry to assess the fate of new drugs in the living
system. At the moment, the only way to do this is by using radioactive
tracers and then dissecting animals at various times after dosing.
is a strong European movement to reduce the numbers of animals used
in such tests," Ms Meynadier explains. "With some minor
modifications, the gamma camera could follow the pathway of drugs
without the need to sacrifice the animals."