World’s brightest x-rays reveal COVID-19’s damage to the body

ESRF, Paul Tafforeau
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This video shows a 3D reconstruction of the complete brain of a 69-year-old female donor. Researchers made this x-ray scan with a new technique—called hierarchical phase-contrast tomography, or HiP-CT—that relies on the world’s brightest X-ray source, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France.

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When Paul Tafforeau saw his first experimental scans of a COVID-19 victim’s lung, he thought he had failed. A paleontologist by training, Tafforeau had been laboring with a team strewn across Europe for months to turn a particle accelerator in the French Alps into a revolutionary medical scanning tool.

It was the end of May 2020, and scientists were anxious for a better view of the ways human organs were being ravaged by COVID-19. Tafforeau had been tasked with developing a technique that could make use of the powerful x-rays generated at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France. He’d pushed boundaries on high-resolution x-rays of rock-hard fossils and desiccated mummies as an ESRF staff scientist. Now, he was dismayed by a lump of soft, squishy tissue.

But when his colleagues caught their first glimpse of the lung scans, they felt something else: awe.

The images presented them with richer detail than any medical CT scan they’d seen before, allowing them to bridge a stubborn gap in how scientists and doctors can visualize—and make sense of—human organs. “In anatomy textbooks, when you see, This is the large scale, and this is the smaller one, they’re all beautiful hand-drawn images for a reason: They’re artistic interpretations, because we have no images for it,” says Claire Walsh, a senior postdoctoral fellow at University College London (UCL). “For the first time, we can make the real thing.”

Tafforeau and Walsh are part of an international team of more than 30 researchers...

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