X-rays, lungs and breathing at birth

Phillip Law Postdoctoral Prize in the Physical Sciences

The winner of the 2013 Phillip Law Prize, Dr Marcus Kitchen from the School of Physics at Monash, will speak about his cutting edge work on imaging: Seeing the lungs in a new light.

Before a baby is born, its lungs are filled with the same amniotic fluid that it floats in during pregnancy.  The fluid provides nutrition, protection and absorbed oxygen.  At birth, this fluid must be cleared rapidly from the lungs before the new-born can begin to breath gaseous oxygen.  These first minutes are critical to the baby’s survival but, because the lungs are so delicate and of such low density, they are among the most difficult organs to image.  As a result, until now, we have known very little about what happens and why things sometimes go wrong.

Recent major advances in X-ray imaging, using “phase contrast” techniques, have made it possible to see even the smallest airways of the lung in a single image.  Using impressive two-dimensional (2D) X-ray images to measure changes in regional lung air volumes – a feat normally only possible using 3D datasets – this technology can now reveal the complex process of lung aeration at birth that enables gas exchange to occur.  Equally importantly, the doses of ionising x-radiation currently associated with X-ray tomography can be reduced by a factor of 10 to greatly reduce cancer risks.

Building on this ground-breaking research, methods are now being developed to measure the size of the gas exchanging airways in vivo from single 2D phase contrast images.  As a result, we expect that we will soon be able to detect changes associated with neonatal lung pathology and, hopefully, save babies lives.