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Science Saturday Zurich scientists develop special brain scanner

PET-CT scanner

A conventional PET-CT scanner in use in a hospital in Geneva


Two researchers from the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich are building a brain scanner that is far less expensive and much smaller than current models. Their work has earned them a place on the 2018 Forbes list of important young researchers.

Max Ahnen and Jannis Fischer, both particle physicists, have been included in the American magazine’s 30 Under 30 Europeexternal link list 2018 in the category Science and Healthcare, the ETH Zurich saidexternal link on Thursday.

This list, which was published earlier this year, recognises “the most intelligent young entrepreneurs and inventors” in different disciplines.

“We are very proud to have made it onto the list, next year we would have been too old to qualify!” said Fischer in the statement.

Hope for dementia diagnosis

The two researchers are developing a special Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanner. The technology is currently used for detecting cancer, as well as neurological and cardiovascular diseases – and can diagnose certain neurological health conditions up to 20 years before a doctor can do so via physical symptoms, the statement said.

But current PET devices are large and expensive: taking up around 15 square metres of floor space and costing CHF1.5 million - CHF5-5 million ($1.6 million - $5.6 million), it added.

Jannis Fischer (left) and Max Ahnen with a simple model of the head part of their BPET scanner

Jannis Fischer (left) and Max Ahnen with a simple model of the head part of their BPET scanner

(Florian Bachmann/ETH Zurich )

At ETH Zurich’s Institute for Particle Physics and Astrophysicsexternal link, Ahnen and Fischer are developing a scanner that will cost a tenth of current PET devices and take up less than two square metres.

“It looks a bit like a hair salon chair with an integrated hairdryer hood,” Ahnen said. The provisional name for their invention is Brain PET (BPET) and it will be used to identify brain tumours and diseases of the nervous system, like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, as well as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, diseases which cause dementia. 

It size would mean that it could also be used in smaller clinics in South America, Asia or Africa, as well as in big hospitals. The BPET technology will also be cheaper to use in the long run, the scientists say.

The scientists are in the process of founding a company and are building a prototype. They hope BPET will come onto the market in 2021.


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