Mechanical Engineering


The Human Organ Atlas Hub (HOAHub) to study human organs in unprecedented detail launched today

21 September 2023

Today marks the launch of the Human Organ Atlas Hub (HOAHub) – a project spearheaded by UCL Mechanical Engineering’s Professor Peter Lee and Dr Claire Walsh, based on the use of the Extremely Brilliant Source at the ESRF.

Photo of Dr Claire Walsh at ESRF

The Human Organ Atlas Hub (HOAHub) was launched today, with the first beamtime experiments beginning at the European Synchrotron (ESRF).

Professor Peter Lee and Dr Claire Walsh of UCL Mechanical Engineering, working as part of an international team from eight institutes, have spearheaded an imaging research project aiming to use transformational X-ray tomography technology to scan whole human organs, and eventually our entire body, to an extremely high resolution – estimated resolution to be approaching one-fiftieth of a human hair.

The group – comprised of a mixture of engineers, medics, educators, pathologists, cardiologists and more – have developed a new scanning technique in collaboration with the ESRF, named Hierarchal Phase-Contract Tomography (HiP-CT). The technology enables whole intact organs to be examined at multiple scales all the way down to the cellular level. The scans can be created with a resolution of 25 microns, which is around twenty times the resolution of a clinical CT scanner, and then small regions can be zoomed in on at <1 micron resolution, which is five hundred times the resolution of a CT scanner.

YouTube Widget Placeholderhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WW719D4ese4&ab_channel=HiP-CT

The team at UCL Mechanical Engineering partnered with Dr Paul Tafforeau from the ESRF, together with Drs Max Ackermann and Danny Jonigk from Aachen, to co-develop the technique. This international research project is funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI).

Professor Peter Lee, UCL Mechanical Engineering, said:

“Although we developed HiP-CT with ESRF to help understand the damage COVID-19 can do to our lungs, through the HOAHub it is now impacting on a wide range of diseases, medical training, and just our own personal understanding of the diversity of functions and morphology of our organs. We also hope to develop it to enable scanning of whole human bodies, creating an inner universe for us to fly through, very much like Google Earth, but in 3D. Already, we’re making this possible for our organs.”

Background behind the HOAHub project

So far, the varying biomedical imaging techniques haven’t been able to show body parts in a detailed enough resolution. For example, computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resource imaging (MRI) both create images in millimetre resolution, whilst using a microscope to examine a biopsy only shows a tiny part of a whole organ. It has been impossible to create images of entire human organs with micro resolution – until now.

The solution to this problem initially stems from an imaging technique developed at the ESRF for palaeontology, with tomographic technology that scans fossils and ancient human skulls. This idea to use X-ray tomography technology was also assisted in 2020 by the development of the ESRF’s Extremely Brilliant Source (EBS). This created the brightest X-ray source ever (around 100 times brighter than before), which meant larger soft samples, like human organs, could be scanned in a new level of detail.

Human heart scan

Creating the Human Organ Atlas Hub

The project so far has created 3D images of over 50 organs, including lungs, brains, hearts, kidneys, spleens and livers. The aim is for this to become a reference database of organ images that anyone worldwide can access – explore the images at human-organ-atlas.esrf.eu.

The HOAHub will enable an accelerated development of the HiP-CT technique and allow groups worldwide to use the technique. The HOAHub aims to solve key biomedical challenges and translate the findings to clinical applications and histology labs, as well as correlate up and down imaging scales and modalities. The HOAHub will create an open network of imaging by having all results open access for scientists, medics and students worldwide to use.

The vision behind the HOAHub was to create a synergistic and interdisciplinary group that exchanges ideas and resources (both physical and software-based) to create an efficient pipeline for Hierarchal Phase-Contract Tomography (HiP-CT). Ultimately, this project aims to answer some of the most important global biomedical questions.

First Annual General Meeting: Wednesday 27 September 2023, 4 – 6pm (BST)

Join us online for our first HOAHub AGM to learn more about the project and participating in the hub.

Speakers include Professor Peter Lee and Dr Claire Walsh of UCL Mechanical Engineering as well as other co-investigators, beamtime scientists and working group leads from across the globe. Read the agenda for the event and register your spot (for free) below:

Register for the event

Composite image of various organs scanned using HiP-CT technique

Further Links

Image credits

  • Composite image organs: Video credit Paul Tafforeau data credit UCL led ESRF beamtimes md1252/1290
  • Heart image: Image credit Klaus Engel, Cinematic Rendering, Siemens Healthineers, data credit UCL led ESRF beamtimes md1252/1290