CZI grant awarded to UCL and ESRF project for the development of HiP-CT imaging

Scan of Covid victim's lungs

Professor Peter Lee, along with Professor Rebecca Shipley and Professor Paul Tafforeau, has been awarded a £750,000 Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) grant as part of a world-wide call to advance deep tissue imaging.

The award-winning team leaders from UCL and ESRF have developed a project, titled ‘Anatomical to cellular synchrotron imaging of the whole human body’, which is designed to enable cellular-level imaging within whole organisms. With development the new technology they hope to enable the scanning of the whole of the human body to a resolution of 25 microns, which is thinner than a human hair and far greater than that of commercial CT scanners. It can also be used to zoom in on specific details to a resolution of almost 1 micron. With this ability we will be able to develop a greater understanding of how viruses and diseases affect organs through detailed study of deep tissue damage.

The new technique, Hierarchical Phase-Contrast Tomography or HiP-CT, has already yielded unprecedented detail on intact organs of Covid-19 patients in feasibility studies.

Using the non-destructive new technique, scientists scanned the right upper lobe of a 54-year-old Covid-19 patient who had passed away from multiple organ failure after receiving mechanical ventilation. The results yielded high quality imagery detailing fine structures such as the individual capillaries used for alveolar gas exchange. This allowed the team to determine the complex vascular system of the lung in full 3D and learn how the virus affects oxygen exchange in the finest microvasculature.

The images provide evidence that alterations to the vascular system have a critical function in the pathophysiology of Covid-19-related pneumonia. Find out more about their discovery by watching the short video below.

The project came about through the collaboration of multidisciplinary, international specialists based on the recent Extremely Brilliant Source (EBS) upgrade at the ESRF which has created the brightest X-ray source in the world.

Professor Peter Lee explains, “Early in the pandemic a group of German medics at Mainz contacted me to see if we could image the damage Covid-19 causes in the lung. We quickly brought together scientists at ESRF and Diamond Light Source, and started imaging biopsy (tiny) samples. Paul Tafforeau realised that using the new synchrotron ESRF-EBS, we could get the same resolution on whole organs as we do in biopsies, which would be transformational as we could link cellular damage at an organ scale. Forming a UK-French-German team, we developed HiP-CT during lockdown, and we are continuing to develop it, while using the results to help clinicians understand the injury Covid-19 has on our organs.”

Professor Paul Tafforeau adds, “the Covid-19 pandemic changed a lot of things for many people. I realized that several imaging techniques we originally developed for palaeontology could open access to a new level of imaging precision on complete human organs. While developing the techniques further, we realised that it may be a game changer for biological imaging in general. Our team then decided to apply for the CZI grant in order to turn these promising preliminary results into a real breakthrough that should have a major impact in the coming years in the biomedical community.”

 “Being able to see within our intact bodies to capture dynamic processes with cellular resolution will also help us to overcome a wide range of challenges, such as understanding how osteoarthritis affects our joints or understanding infection in disease.” Peter Lee

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) was founded in 2015 by Dr Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg. The philanthropy provides investment across three core focus areas of Science, Education and Justice & Opportunity with the aim of using technology to help to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.

Through the £750,000 grant CZI hopes to support the project in making significant breakthroughs in critical areas. CZI states, “Although there have been significant advances in biomedical imaging, we are far from the ultimate goal: to observe cells and subcellular processes in living organisms and in a minimally invasive way.”

Using the CZI funding, the team aims to develop HiP-CT, the new X-ray tomography technique, to enable previously unimagined sub-micron cellular imaging in hard and soft tissue. This will ultimately allow researchers to perform a virtual 3D histology anywhere within the human body non-destructively. The development process will also lead to significant breakthroughs in important areas such as X-ray optics, detectors and hierarchical correlative image-reconstruction algorithms.

Much of the dynamic imaging of the project will be undertaken by Professor Lee at his lab at the Research Complex at Harwell.

Find out more about the achievements of Professor Peter Lee:

Find out more about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative:

Frontiers of Imaging Technology - Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: