Instruments of Change

A beam of neutrons may be the key to visualizing tiny biological and engineering processes

Illustrations by Larry Davis, Spallation Neutron Source, ORNL

Jason Hayward wants to change the world. More specifically, he wants to revolutionize the surgical tools doctors use to treat and remove cancer.

But Hayward isn’t a physician or a biologist—he is an associate professor of nuclear engineering at UT. What’s his plan? To develop new instruments that will harness the power of neutron imaging technology to produce incredibly high-resolution pictures of problems lurking beneath the skin.

Doctors currently use X-rays or computed tomography (CT) scans to evaluate the human body and its bone structure. X-rays are good for taking pictures of the body because they can sense the density contrast between bone and organ tissue. However, those images can’t provide a very clear picture when such large differences in density do not exist.

Neutron imaging is similar to X-rays, but with one key difference: it excels at imaging features with little mass. “Compared with X-rays, neutron imaging is an all-around better tool to look at structures that have low mass, perhaps even cellular structures like cancer outgrowth in the body,” Hayward says. “The resolution must be high enough to observe what’s happening at the cellular level, though.”

Today’s medical tools limit a doctor’s ability to effectively treat cancer because tumor outgrowths are too small to be seen using current tools. Hayward’s neutron imaging research looks to improve resolution so observations can be made at the cellular level. This may enable medical professionals to see previously undetectable microscopic cancer cell outgrowths.

“If doctors in the future have the tools and instrumentation to be able to see the cancerous outgrowths, they can be smarter about removing tumors,” says Hayward. “They can also be smarter about using radiation treatment to target the tumor. If we’re able to improve the technology, we have the potential to see cleaner cancer removal and treatment.”

Schematic of the VENUS Instrument

Schematic of the VENUS Instrument


Hayward’s work is funded by a US Department of Energy Early Career Research Award, which will provide $750,000 over five years. “The five-year time period is great because I can spend the time it will take to advance the basic research,” he explains.

The fruits of Hayward’s labor could also have a huge impact on other areas outside the operating room. For example, neutron imaging may help overcome known limitations to creating the next generation of high performance electric automobiles by allowing researchers to observe the way lithium flows through an advanced battery. The development of a high resolution imaging instrument, used along with modeling and simulation tools, is expected to be integral to solving degradation issues and increasing the performance of these batteries.

“There’s a lot of promise in looking at things with neutrons that you can’t see with X-rays. We just need to enhance the instrumentation used for research,” Hayward says. “My focus is on the instrumentation side of neutron beams. This particular work was motivated by a collaboration with a scientist at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) who made me aware of the important problems and current limitations of neutron imaging.”

Hayward is a member of a worldwide team of scientists trying to upgrade the imaging tools used in medical research, engineering, and industrial applications. He is teaming up with a university in the United Kingdom for his instrument development efforts and his work is an important part of a new high resolution neutron imaging beam line being built at SNS.

If everything goes as planned, Hayward is confident the application of his research will eventually change the world. But be patient. He estimates it will be at least a decade before the technology is mature enough to be readily available for such applications. No doubt, it will be worth the wait.

Published online, Quest, July 5, 2014

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