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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 December 2005, 13:56 GMT
Double X-rays give 'speedy scan'
Cardiovascular, skeletal and muscular scans of a 65-year-old man (copyright - Siemens)
Cardiovascular, skeletal and muscular scans of a 65-year-old man taken by the scanner
A hi-tech scanner has been developed which takes images in less time than it takes the human heart to beat.

The Somatom Definition machine contains two X-ray scanners so full body images can be taken twice as fast.

Manufacturer Siemens said the scanner, which will be available in the UK next autumn, is ideal for diagnosing heart problems because of its speed.

Scanning experts said such technology might reduce the need for more invasive diagnostic techniques.

CT (computed tomography) scans use special x-ray equipment to obtain image data from different angles around the body.

A computer then processes the information to show a cross-section of body tissues and organs.

Traditional scanners contain one X-ray tube, with one detector directly opposite.

The scanner spirals around the patient's body, moving down from head to toe to give a complete picture.

The machines can currently complete around three rotations a second.

Beta blockers

Scientists want to speed up the pace of the rotations, so the check is completed more quickly.

This would mean the patient could be tested faster, and potentially enable hospitals to scan more patients in the time available.

But Gunter Dombrowe, head of Siemens Medical Solutions in the UK, said it has been physically impossible to develop a conventional CT scanner which works any faster.

Heart scan - copyright Siemens
The heart - as seen using the scanner

To get around that problem, the Somatom Definition machine uses two X-ray tubes and two detectors.

One X-ray starts at 0 and continues round the body to 90, while the second starts at 90 and finishes at 180 - and can therefore complete the scan twice as fast.

Mr Dombrowe said that was particularly important when carrying out heart checks.

Taking CT scans of the heart currently requires the patient to take beta-blockers to slow the heart to allow its workings to be seen clearly.

Mr Dombrowe added: "This machine gives you a 'freeze frame' of the heart.

"And it allows you to get images fast and reliably.

"It's ideal for emergency departments because it allows you to complete a full body scan and to see the entire vascular system, aiding diagnosis."

The first Somatom Definition scanner is installed at the University of Erlangen in Germany.

The company says it is in talks with both the NHS and the private sector about introducing the machines to the UK.

Professor Adrian Dixon, of the Royal College of Radiologists, said the scanner produced very impressive results.

"It is another step in the evolution of computed tomography."

He said it might ultimately provide a much less invasive alternative to coronary arteriography, in which a catheter is passed up to the heart via a blood vessel in the groin.

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