The Transparent Body
The Transparent Body
The “easy” diseases have pretty much been beaten in the Western world, leaving doctors to contend with the more complex illnesses that stealthily overrun the body. Two-thirds of the deaths in the United States are now attributable to cancer or coronary disease. By the time these conditions manifest themselves, it’s often too late to intervene. Treatment is only likely to succeed if early signs of cancerous growth or clogging arteries can be detected. A tumor measuring a few millimeters across is plainly less threatening than one the size of a tennis ball, not least because there is less risk of metastasis at an early stage. The focus is therefore on enhancing rapid diagnosis, which in turn means improving medical imaging. Eighty percent of all diagnoses are based on images. Yet many small but life-threatening physical processes are still missed by the scanners, echographs, and other devices that peer inside our bodies. Growths measuring less than a centimeter tend to be overlooked, so scientists are constantly working on techniques capable of offering a more detailed internal picture. Breakthroughs in imaging technology can mean the difference between life and death. They’ll enable us to intervene sooner, boosting the patient’s survival chances. Little more than a generation ago, X-rays were the only means we had of looking inside the human body. The images they produce are flat, however, and lacking in depth information, which can make them hard to interpret. An ingenious technique was therefore devised in the 1970s that allowed a single three-dimensional image to be created by combining a series of X-ray photographs. The CT (computerized tomography) scan was the first technique to produce a genuine three-dimensional image of our insides. Doctors could now tell, for instance, whether an abnormality was located on top of a bone or beneath it. Several other techniques for producing three-dimensional images of the body have since become available, some of which require patients to be injected with a contrast agent to highlight specific parts of the body.
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