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The Future of Medical Imaging: An Interview With Richard Robb, PhD

My former mentor, Dr. Richard Robb, is Director of the Biomedical Imaging Resource Center at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota. I first met Dr. Robb as a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) in the Department of Biophysics at Mayo in 1994. Behind his reserved exterior is a man who is bursting with enthusiasm about the amazing technological advances that are making it possible for us to see cells, tissues, and organs in ways barely conceived of several decades ago. Dr. Robb admits that his passion for improving the quality of anatomical visualization is a response to a challenge once given him by a neurosurgeon colleague: “If I can see it, I can fix it.” Dr. Robb’s life’s work is to enable physicians and surgeons to be more effective healers through direct visualization of anatomy and physiology.

I caught up with Dr. Robb (at the Society for Women’s Health Research briefing on imaging and women’s health) and asked him a few questions about the future of medical imaging. Here are some excerpts from our interview:

Dr. Val: What is micro CT and what information does it give doctors?

Dr. Robb: Micro CT is a specialized kind of scanner that works on the same principles as regular CT scanners but it can capture images at much higher resolution. Structures as small as 5-10 microns in size can be seen. Although this is an emerging technology used primarily for research purposes, it has tremendous potential and implications for the future. With such resolution, we’ll be able to do “virtual biopsies” of suspicious tissue that we find with a regular CT and then zoom in with the Micro CT to get a close look at microscopic detail without having to do a biopsy to study them.

Dr. Val: What is SISCOM and who benefits from it?

Dr. Robb: SISCOM is an acronym for “Subtraction Interictal Spect COregistered to Mri.” It is used to pinpoint small parts of the brain that cause epileptic seizures, so that surgeons can effectively remove the diseased tissue.  SISCOM uses radioactive tags that are absorbed by the parts of the brain that are over-active during a seizure, and they glow like a lightbulb on SPECT brain scans that are subtracted and registered onto MRI scans. The radiologist can pinpoint the exact focus of the abnormal epileptic discharges and then show the surgeons exactly where they need to resect the tissue. This technique allows surgeons to cure many patients who suffer from seizures that don’t respond to medications.

Dr. Val: What is the most exciting new imaging technology under development and how will it impact health?

Dr. Robb: The most exciting future technologies will allow us to visualize tissue functions at a chemical level. In the next 10 years we’ll see major advancements in image resolution and micro imaging techniques, and eventually we’ll be able to see individual molecules. This technology could actually eliminate the need for surgical biopsies, replacing them with “virtual or digital biopsies”, including close up images of cells and chemical reactions, such as diffusion, all in the context of surrounding macro-sized structures.  The effect of the chemical actions and reactions will be expressed visually at the organ function level.

Also, in the next 10-20 years the development and clinical use of “nanobots”, or tiny robotic elements, that can be ingested or injected into the body will become manifest.  These may be used with special biomarkers – substances that preferentially label tissue types and pathology within the body.  These traveling nanobots can, for example, either go to the biomarkers or expore intelligently certain anatomic domains, taking pictures inside GI tracts, pulmonary airways, or even blood vessels.  They will then analyze these images for detection and characterization of abnormalities (like a polyp) followed by administering treatment to the abnormality (e.g., remove it by ablation or radiation or chemicals). The nanobot will remain in the body until it has removed or repaired the targeted pathology or trauma, then it will exit through natural means or “self-destruct” in a safe way. Nanobots could reduce the need for more invasive surgeries, and dramatically improve clinical outcomes with very low risk and morbidity.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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