Computing power speeds safer CT scans

March 13, 2012

GE's "Veo" scanner technology helps lower patients' radiation exposure (credit: GE Health)

A new Intel algorithm slashes compute time for low radiation dose scans from 100 hours per image to less than an hour while reducing radiation by four times.

In a hospital emergency room, standard CT scanners can quickly look over the affected area, and in less than 5 minutes generate images of the inside of a patient’s body, helping doctors make life-saving decisions.

But there’s a catch,  “The radiation dose for a standard chest CT scan is equal to about 70 chest X-rays,” says Dr. Ella Kazerooni, a professor of radiology at the University of Michigan Medical School:

That may be OK when it’s a desperate life-or-death emergency, but what about when doctors need to take regular CT scans of a small child with a long-term disease such as lymphoma, or an adult with a brain tumor? The amounts of total X-ray radiation such patients may be exposed to could quickly reach levels that could elevate their risk of cancer.

In those cases, doctors can use CT scans with very low doses of X-ray radiation that dramatically reduce the patient’s cancer risk. But it takes lots of time, and huge amounts of computing power, to turn the smaller dataset from a low-dose scan into a usable medical image, about four to five days of computing time on mainframe-equivalent computers to come up with a workable image.

For many doctors and hospitals, both the computer power needed and the long delay to get an image have made low-dose scans impractical.

“For scanners, the secret sauce is in the algorithm that generates the images,” said Intel’s Steven Johnson. The problem was that a promising algorithm for creating an image — known as Model-Based Iterative Reconstruction — was enormously complex and carrying it out could bog down even the most modern computers.

Dramatic Reduction in X-Ray Exposure

So Intel and GE developed an accelerator based on 28 Xeon processors totaling 112 cores and a dramatically improved algorithm. They reduced the compute time to around an hour, delivering superior medical images and reducing the X-ray power by up to 90 percent.

GE calls the new scanning technology “Veo.” Part of the company’s line of Discovery Scanners, it was introduced in Europe last year and was approved by the U.S. FDA.

Evgeny Drapkin, a principal engineer at GE Health, said that exposure levels for scans done with the Veo machines have been reduced by 4 times.