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It's almost impossible to overstate the significance of medical imaging in the development of modern medicine. The New England Journal of Medicine, considered the world's oldest and single most influential general medical periodical, calls medical imaging one of the top medical developments of the last millennium. You might say that imaging is to medicine what the telescope is to astronomy. Modern medicine would simply not exist without it.
Basically, medical imaging gives health professionals views of the human body, inside and out, to reveal exactly what's working and what's not in ways previously not possible. In so doing, it has guided doctors in the saving of countless lives, and has created a multi-billion dollar global industry. It's an industry that continues to grow, as even small providers realize that they can now purchase used equipment, such as an MRI machine, and realize a hefty return on their investment in a relatively short time, turning a few hundred thousand dollars into millions. Today, the sheer volume of medical imaging has come under fire as feeding the rising costs of health care, a claim hotly contested by the industry.
From its beginnings in 1895, with the discovery of the X-ray, medical imaging has branched out to encompass a range of technologies for uncovering the structure and processes within the human body. Each technology has its own strengths and weaknesses, and is used for identifying specific types of internal problems. Below is a breakdown of the principal imaging technologies used today and what they offer, along with examples of successful publicly traded companies directly associated with them.
X-Ray - The grandfather of medical imaging, X-rays are still the most frequently used imaging technology. X-ray imaging, a form of highly penetrative electromagnetic radiation, is used for viewing broken bones, but also for dense tumors, as in breast cancer, for lung evaluation, and for spotting foreign objects, such as bullets or swallowed items. Of course, it's also used in dentistry, as well as for non-medical applications, such as security checks at airports.
The best known player in X-rays, and the biggest player in all medical imaging, is General Electric (NYSE: GE), but the company is facing controversy for their earlier announcement of a planned move of its X-ray operations from Wisconsin to China. Varian Medical Systems (NYSE: VAR), based in California, offers hundreds of medical and industrial X-ray tubes, and has a consistent record of growing sales and earnings.
Computed Tomography (CT) - Usually called CAT scan, CT uses computer processing to combine multiple X-ray images, creating image cross-section slices of a 3D form. It involves more radiation than a standard X-ray, but is good for imaging tumors and various body organs, including the colon, as well as blockages of lung arteries, and for evaluating such things as possible appendicitis. CT scanning has also proven to be an important tool in the war against lung cancer.
Toshiba (OTC:TOSBF), a major producer of imaging and other equipment, is the maker of the award winning Aquilion ONE CT Scanner.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) - MRI uses a strong magnetic field to align various atoms in the body, and then manipulates them with radio waves to generate magnetic signals that can be detected and processed, creating an image. MRI is especially useful for imaging soft tissues, such as breast, heart, and liver, where it is sensitive enough to differentiate diseased tissue from healthy tissue, as well as for fractures, tumors, and arthritis.
Netherlands based Royal Philips Electronics (NYSE: PHG) is a world leader in healthcare related technologies and equipment, producing a wide range of MRI systems.
Ultrasound - Considered the least invasive in terms of radiation, ultrasound (sometimes called ultrasonography) uses high-frequency sound waves to generate pictures of soft tissues, including real-time moving images, often related to pregnancy or various organs, such as the heart and blood vessels.
Samsung Electronics (GM:SSNLF), aiming to expand its healthcare market competition with Philips and GE, recently entered the ultrasound market by purchasing a majority stake in South Korean ultrasound manufacturer Medison.
Positron Emission Tomography (PET) - Unique in its ability to get down to cellular processes, PET, a cutting-edge, rapidly growing branch of nuclear medicine, uses short-lived radioactive chemicals that can, depending upon the chemicals used, provide vital information regarding neurological diseases, heart disease, and cancer. Unlike traditional imaging modalities - MRI, CT, and Ultrasound - that reveal the anatomical abnormalities and cause for disease, PET provides insight into physiology and can detect disease before anatomical manifestation is identified.
FluoroPharma Medical does not focus on PET equipment, but rather the critically important imaging agents, the chemicals that allow PET technology to see the cellular processes associated with heart disease and other major diseases. Clinical trials have already confirmed FluoroPharma's imaging agents are safe and are now establishing their efficacy.
The company's broad technology platform was developed by scientists at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. FluoroPharma has four issued U.S. patents, with seven pending applications, together with strong international protection. According to GAI, the market for molecular imaging agents currently exceeds $1.7 billion annually and promises rapid growth for the foreseeable future.