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Breakthrough Boosts Possibilities Of T-Rays

January 26, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Breast Imaging, Diagnostic Imaging
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T-rays: the next frontier?

Terahertz waves, also known by the much cooler-sounding name “T-rays,” are in the far-infrared part of the spectrum—some say between the microwave and infrared zones. Their wavelengths are hundreds of times longer than those of the rays in the visible light spectrum. Their most common use right now is in airport security scanners.

T-rays have great potential for medical imaging applications. They don’t penetrate deeply into the body. But each type of molecule has its own unique signature in the T-ray range. So T-rays can distinguish between, for example, normal cells and cancerous cells. They can also detect such phenomena as increased blood flow around tumors.

Researchers have just announced a breakthrough that focuses T-rays into a much stronger directional beam than had been possible, and at room temperature. For details, see a study published online this month in Nature Photonics. Previously, T-ray generators had to operate at very low temperatures, which is expensive.

Stefan Maier, PhD, a coauthor of the study, sees vast potential:

T-rays promise to revolutionize medical scanning to make it faster and more convenient, potentially relieving patients from the inconvenience of complicated diagnostic procedures and the stress of waiting for accurate results.

The idea is to use T-rays in a portable sensing, computing, and data communications device, like the tricorder of Star Trek fame. Dr. Maier was quoted in a news release from Imperial College London, where he is a physics professor.

T-rays’ possibilities intrigue others as well. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, New York, has created a Center for Terahertz Research that encompasses four separate laboratories. According to its Web site:

Perhaps the greatest potential for this research lies in biomedical imaging and genetic diagnostics. T-rays offer hope for improved detection of breast cancer through sharper imaging and molecular fingerprinting.

However, there may be a complication. T-rays are not ionizing, and they don’t break chemical bonds. But some studies have reported genetic damage, possibly through interference with DNA. Other studies have found no such effects.

We’ll definitely be hearing more about T-rays. Stay tuned.

Related seminar: Radiology Review

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