A 3D scanner being designed by Kiwi scientists could revolutionise x-ray technology and help detect diseases like cancer in a way never been done before.

A joint initiative called the MARS Programme - just backed by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) with "gold status" for research excellence - is building a spectral molecular scanner capable of producing colour images of objects inside the body such as bone, soft tissue and artificial joints.

The research team behind it - made up of experts from the University of Canterbury, University of Otago and the company MARS Bioimaging - says it could bring big benefits to healthcare.

"This spectral molecular imaging technology really is the next big medical imaging innovation, and these 3D images will provide clinicians with information that is currently not possible in CT, MRI or PET scans," said Professor Anthony Butler of the University of Canterbury.


The implications of the research would be "huge" for the medical profession.

"The capability of this scanner will enable greater diagnosis and monitoring of many diseases, and will lead to better outcomes for patients – particularly in stroke prevention, joint replacement and cancer management."

The technology also had the potential to add more than $50 million per year to the New Zealand economy once the manufactured products arising from the research were in regular use in hospitals, Butler said.

The team's main goal was for MARS Bioimaging Ltd to market MARS scanners developed by the University of Canterbury, where proof of concept trials have been undertaken at Otago University's Christchurch campus.

The initial market was a range of researchers from many institutes.

The research has also been supported by the MedTech Centre of Research Excellence, as well as GE Healthcare, which was providing a top-of-the-line CT scanner to the MARS team to help speed the work along.

The team will also explore potential applications in other industries such as border security, forestry, agriculture and mining, Butler said.

MARS Bioimaging chief executive Phil Butler, also a University of Canterbury professor and Anthony Butler's father, said medical innovations had high commercial value and high social impact - but long lead times.


"The strong support of MBIE has been essential over the duration of this project, a project that is just beginning to break into the pre-clinical research market in the US, India and China."