Press release | 17.5.2022
Munich, 17 May 2022 - The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that a Swiss-Chinese team led by researchers Marco Stampanoni and Zhentian Wang has been shortlisted for the European Inventor Award 2022 for improving a type of X-ray imaging that provides high-resolution images of soft tissue using a safe amount of radiation.
Their invention enhances the contrast of mammograms, enabling doctors to detect breast tumours while they are still small and more easily treatable. The inventors have been working with Philips to retrofit a commercial mammography system with their technology and now - together with their company GratXray - they are developing a new kind of mammography machine that can provide 3D scans with no discomfort to the patient.
"Researchers highlight the importance of early detection in beating cancer," says EPO President António Campinos, announcing the finalists. "Thanks to Marco Stampanoni, Zhentian Wang and their colleagues, doctors and patients will have an improved early-detection technique."
Stampanoni and Wang are named as one of the three finalists for the European Inventor Award in the "Non-EPO countries" category, which recognises inventions developed outside EPO member states, or through significant collaboration with partners outside EPO member states. The winners of the 2022 edition of the EPO's European Inventor Award will be announced at a virtual ceremony on 21 June.
Conventional X-rays pass easily through breast tissue and tumours, making it difficult for physicians to differentiate between the two. As a result, patients may need additional scans to confirm whether a tumour has been detected. One way to increase the contrast of the image would be to turn up the X-ray dose, but the extra radiation could be unsafe for the patient - a problem that acted as the inspiration for Stampanoni and Wang's invention.
"A mammographic investigation should not cause more damage than the cancer itself," said Stampanoni. "We wanted to have something that can provide better and more precise breast imaging while keeping an eye on the dose."
In 2010, Wang moved from China to work as a post-doctoral researcher at the Paul Scherrer Institut (PSI) under Stampanoni, whose team had been working on a solution called phase contrast imaging - a technique that enhances the contrast of X-ray images. Originally, Stampanoni's team had been using the synchrotron - a very intense source of X-rays - to obtain high-resolution high-contrast images of small samples, but any workable solution would need to use a conventional X-ray source found in clinics.
To solve this problem - building on earlier work from PSI's Christian David and Franz Pfeiffer - Stampanoni's team has been extensively investigating whether a technique called gratings interferometry could help. When letting X-rays passing through gratings it is possible to measure how those are diffracted and deflected as they travel through tissue and this additional information adds contrast to the final images, leading to sharper images than a normal X-rays. Together with Chinese scientists Zhu Peiping and Wu Ziyu from the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing, Stampanoni's team showed that it was possible to successfully operate a gratings interferometer under conditions similar to those encountered in a clinical environment and applied for a patent for that invention in 2009.
Wang, who had been the first PhD student in China to work on gratings interferometry, joined Stampanoni's group to apply the gratings technology in a real-world situation, specifically breast imaging. The challenge was to scale up the experimental setup (which used samples only a few millimetres in size) to one that could scan a person's organ, and to make sure that the equipment could still work in a regular hospital, which does not have the same tightly controlled environment as a lab.
Another task was to turn the signals from the grating interferometer into images that clinicians could easily understand and interpret. The extra data could create two additional clear, detailed images that could help doctors identify a tumour's microcalcifications (small calcium deposits) and small tumours before they grew further, enabling earlier breast cancer diagnosis. Originally Stampanoni and the team produced several separate images from all the data they generated, but feedback from doctors indicated that they were overwhelmed with information and one enhanced image would be better.
"We as physicists were trying very hard to separate the different signals," said Wang. "In the end we had to combine them again to show (doctors) the benefit."
In 2014, Stampanoni, Wang and team applied for two patents for their methods to retrieve signals from the grating interferometer and to turn them into a single, informative image. Together with Philips they equipped a commercial mammography system with their gratings interferometry components. This retrofitted standing breast scanner, which is able to generate a high definition 2D image in the same time as a standard mammogram (usually a few seconds), was completed in 2021 and will be used in patient pilot's studies this year.
In 2017, the pair co-founded GratXray, with Stampanoni acting as a member of the board of directors and Wang as CTO, in order to commercialise their technology. The Swiss-Chinese duo is currently developing a new type of breast imaging machine that can produce 3D images while avoiding the discomfort of conventional mammograms. The patient lies prone on the machine and an aperture at the top of the device allows the breast to fall naturally into the scanning zone. There a rotating scanning system measures the breast and algorithms stich the individual scans together to generate a 3D volume. The researchers expect to have a working prototype later this year.
In the EU alone, more than 355 000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020, accounting for 13.3% of all cancer diagnoses. Early detection of cancer can reduce mortality rates, help patients to recover faster and reduce treatment costs.
Marco Stampanoni began his research career at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. In 2003 he earned his doctorate in physics, focusing on X-ray tomography and was awarded the ETH-Medal for outstanding PhD thesis. In 2003 he moved to the Paul Scherrer Institut's Swiss Light Source (SLS). In 2008 he became an assistant professor for X-ray Microscopy at ETH Zurich and has been a full professor there since 2017. He is a member of several scientific societies, including the Swiss Physical Society (since 2002), the Swiss Society of Biomedical Engineering (since 2005), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Association (since 2008).
Zhentian Wang specialises in X-ray imaging, computed tomography and image processing. He studied physics at the Dept. of Engineering Physics at Tsinghua University in Beijing and in 2010 transferred to the Paul Scherrer Institut in Switzerland to pursue postdoctoral research under Stampanoni. In 2014 he began work as a scientist at the Institute for Biomedical Engineering at ETH Zurich to develop the clinical phase contrast mammography with Stampanoni. He co-founded the start-up GratXray AG in 2017, where he also took the role of Chief Technical Officer. In August 2021 he left Switzerland to take up a position as an associate professor for X-ray Imaging at Tsinghua University.
The European Inventor Award is one of Europe's most prestigious innovation prizes. Launched by the EPO in 2006, the award honours individuals and teams' solutions to some of the biggest challenges of our times. The finalists and winners are selected by an independent jury comprising former Award finalists. Together, they examine the proposals for their contribution towards technical progress, social and sustainable development and economic prosperity. The EPO will confer the Award in four categories (Industry, Research, SMEs and Non-EPO countries), as well as announcing a Lifetime achievement award at a virtual ceremony on 21 June. In addition, the public selects the Popular Prize winner from the 13 finalists by voting on the EPO website in the run-up to the ceremony. Voting is open until 21 June 2022. Read more on the European Inventor Award eligibility and selection criteria.
This year, for the first time, the EPO will also award bright young minds with the Young Inventors prize. The new prize offers a monetary reward to the three finalists to further encourage them to find creative solutions to pressing sustainable development challenges.
With 6 400 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening co-operation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO's centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world's leading authority in patent information and patent searching.
Luis Berenguer Giménez
Principal Director Communication, Spokesperson
EPO Press Desk
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