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June 19, 2012

New Digital Image Sensor Offers 3D, Not Flat, X-Rays, for Better Diagnosis

A high-resolution wafer-scale digital image sensor that targets medical imaging applications like mammography and digital tomosynthesis, using advanced analog tools, has been developed by the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in the UK.

Digital tomosynthesis is the diagnostic technique used to generate 3D representations of patients or other scanned objects, and this solid-state-based X-ray detection system may, over time, replace conventional diagnostic imaging techniques.

Think of it this way. Digital mammography requires the breast to be pressed against a plate, often painful, and produces a flat image. With digital tomosynthesis, a 3D image is produced, using x-rays. Think plate vs. ball. 

The STFC’s CMOS Sensor Design Group deployed the analog tools from Tanner EDA, a provider of devices “for the design, layout and verification of analog and mixed-signal integrated circuits (ICs),” according to the press release.

The STFC design group also worked closely with TowerJazz for the manufacture of the sensor, which is implemented in a CMOS Image Sensor (CIS) process technology on 200 mm wafers. “TowerJazz’s CIS technology process enables the customization of pixels, according to project needs for many digital imaging applications, offering excellent dark current, low noise and dynamic range performance characteristics,” the press release states.

CMOS sensor-based imaging, used in digital tomosynthesis, allows for high-resolution, high-dynamic range and low noise capabilities, all features digital mammography and other types of x-rays like CT scans and MRIs, can’t offer. It also can provide “significant system cost advantages for X-ray imaging applications, although it can come with an initial penalty in terms of design complexity in the actual development of the CMOS sensor.”

Size is very important in CMOS-imaging-based X-ray applications. As no lens is used, the size of an image sensor has to match the size of the target area and this is not adequate for most medical applications.

A unique feature of the “new STFC high-resolution and radiation-hard CMOS sensor device” is that “it has sensing pixels right up to the edges on three sides of the imager,” allowing multiple sensors, manufactured on 200 mm silicon wafers, to be “butted” or “tiled” together to form a significantly larger imaging area and to meet the requirements for mammography applications, according to the press release. The device also works for applications that demand even larger area coverage, such as chest imaging or security scans.

What it all boils down to is, once again, plate vs. ball. With digital mammograms, the breast must be compressed, which is uncomfortable, and which also causes overlapping of the breast tissue, where a breast cancer can hide. As a survivor of breast cancer, I would certainly want an imaging application that could show the whole target in fine detail. While mammograms are very important, they do have their limitations. It’s possible that digital tomosynthesis could cut down on these kinds of surgeries, especially the false positives (which I also had), which cause almost as much stress as the real thing. 

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Edited by Brooke Neuman
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