A new technique for assessing lung function using x-rays has been developed by Australian researchers.
This may enable earlier detection of lung diseases such as cancer, emphysema and asthma, and lead to more effective treatments for these conditions.
Biological engineer Stephen Dubsky and colleagues at Monash University in Melbourne report their findings today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
Currently, doctors typically assess lung health by using flow meters that measure the volume of air exhaled. However, flow meters can't identify if only a small part of the respiratory system is affected by disease, as in the early stages of cancer.
The new method, created by Dubsky and his team, is called 4D imaging and uses an x-ray source to make movies of the breathing lung, allowing scientists to study lung function in unprecedented detail.
"We are the first team to measure airflow within the lung," says Andreas Fouras, biomedical engineer and senior author of the paper.
In their study, researchers used 4D imaging to assess lung motion in rabbit pups and mice. There are more than 100 airways inside the body and this technique was able to measure flow throughout the airway tree. It was also effective at measuring other variables such as the elasticity and expansion of lung tissue.
New insight into lung diseases
Dubsky explains that with this extra information, diseases such as lung cancer can be detected much earlier; giving doctors a better opportunity to treat patients and potentially save lives.
He adds that it is also useful for monitoring the progress of medical treatments and conducting research into respiratory diseases such as asthma.
"We can use this new technology to better understand asthma and tailor the treatment to the patient," says Dubsky.
But is 4D imaging safe for use on humans?
Fouras says that in a previous study the research team discovered how to lower the x-ray doses for the imaging process.
The team is now working to implement this technology into a human clinical scanner. This would result in a smaller and safer amount of radiation exposure than is emitted by current technologies such as CT scans.
The research team is excited about the prospect of applying their 4D imaging technique to human patients. They estimate that a prototype will be available within five years.
"This could have a really valuable impact on society," says Dubsky.