10 Feb '12
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor
In a major interregional alliance of academia and business, still uncommon for Russia, two scientific and research teams and a private company are pushing what may trigger a landmark breakthrough in X-ray diagnostic imaging. By 2014 developers in Tomsk and the Moscow region expect to bring to market “the world’s first” portable X-ray machines that use semiconductor detector technology and are said to emit exceptionally low radiation.
Siberia’s Tomsk State University (TSU), the Moscow region’s Institute of High-Energy Physics (IHEP) and Moscow-based company Soyuzbiotech are pooling efforts in a two-year project aimed at developing and marketing “the world’s first” portable low radiation X-ray machines based on semiconductor detectors.
The cutting-edge technology is believed to enable a substantial, four-to-five time decrease in patients and physicians’ radiation exposure. With the new portable X-ray system the developers claim it stays within 0.5 microsievert—a dose comparable to that a jet passenger is exposed to aboard a plane.
In the move that still largely hinges on yet-unspecified federal funding, the project owners want to first develop and debug their two operational prototypes (one to be shaped like a case and the other an in-door mobile system) and then by late 2013 “set up production premises to manufacture unique X-ray scanners.”
The broadest application for the innovation is believed to be its use on emergency care ambulances. The X-ray machines are also likely to find customers among healthcare authorities in remote and hard-to-reach localities. Other apparent applications, narrower though, include sports and marine medical services, and diagnostics at polar stations and other areas that require increased mobility.
Prospective production sites will be located in Tomsk and the town of Dubna outside Moscow where two of Russia’s most prolific special economic zones (SEZs) have been established offering technology businesses tax breaks and other benefits.
The global X-ray systems market is expected to reach $4.8bn in four years’ time, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of an estimated 4%. With its tiny $35-50m segment Russia is still a dwarf compared to global leaders in X-ray equipment like the U.S.; however, the Russian market is expanding at a much more robust rate of a reported 20-25%.
Tomsk State University is the key developer of this project’s semiconductor detector technology.
Set up as far back as 1878 by Tsar Alexander II as Imperial Siberian University, TSU joined in April 2010 a pioneering group of 12 Russian higher educational establishments granted the status of National Research Universities with a broad mandate for scientific activity and R&D-focused entrepreneurship. Its premises have also been on a federal list of most valuable items of Russian cultural legacy since 1998.
Institute of High-Energy Physics, TSU’s chief collaborator in the project and actual maker of a first lab prototype of the X-ray system based on the Tomsk technology, is located some 100km south of Moscow in the town of Protvino built in the early 1960s to accommodate IHEP. In 1967, the Institute came up with its first innovation, U-70—in its day, the world’s largest proton accelerator.
Today IHEP is a major government-run scientific center with a focus on fundamental research in high-energy and particle physics. It also works on applied areas like charged particle detectors, accelerator engineering, control systems, and computing.
Set up in 2003 in Moscow, Soyuzbiotech has been engaged in applied chemical research and pharma R&D and manufacture. In its partnership with the Tomsk and Protvino scientific teams the company reportedly undertakes to develop prospective X-ray machines production and take care of marketing issues.
How it all began
According to TSU professor Oleg Tolbanov, his university’s collaboration with Institute of High-Energy Physics in this project idea began almost three years ago. In 2009, the two made a lab model of the future portable X-ray machine.
With a reported $1m financial backing from “international funds and programs” TSU is said to have developed a revolutionary technique that enables recording of images using semiconductor detectors. The approach, in which detectors directly pick up isolated quanta of X- and gamma-rays, was then utilized by IHEP to build the above prototype that looked like a 20kg suitcase.
International scientists have also been working for years on innovative concepts of portable and low-cost X-ray machines. In the EU-funded Nanoray project in Italy, for example, a next-gen compact scanner was developed last year. In their technology, a cold cathode was used instead of a traditional heated one, reportedly boosting image resolution and making scanning quicker.
But there appears to be little or no match for the Tomsk detector technology in sparing a patient’s health compromised at each exposure to X-rays. With a radiation dose less than 25% of the conventional, the developers claim “there are no devices like this one elsewhere in the world.”
A priority project
Being ahead of the curve both in medical science and public healthcare modus operandi might pose a threat to the project as the developers have to rely heavily on Russian government funders that are routinely slow in reviewing and endorsing pioneering programs. Analysts feel, however, that the Tomsk-Moscow project won’t have to wait long before the green light is given.
The funding the consortium is seeking may come from the RF Ministry of Education and Science’s Medicine of the Future, a special program designed to support domestic ground-breaking technology in medicine and promote brand new markets for hi-tech pharma and biotech products and services.
Lyudmila Ogorodova, an official responsible for the program, told the RIA Novosti news agency earlier this week that innovative projects like the new portable low radiation X-ray machines are “a priority” for the RF government.