Physicists boldly go in search of microwaves

THE HUMAN BODY'S natural microwaves - thermal radiation - could hold the key to a new diagnostic technique for physicians.

Reminiscent of the scanner used by Dr 'Bones' McCoy to detect illness in the sci-fi television series Star Trek, a 'microwave stethoscope' has been developed at the University of Glasgow, and has already been praised by leading doctors during clinical trials. Microwave thermography and its medical application has been studied at the university's department of physics and astronomy for 10 years. 'Solid hard work, with no whiz-kid researchers' has this week seen the ideas of Dr David Land, a physicist, rewarded with a pounds 175,000 grant from the Robertson Trust to further investigate how microwave radiation works in the body.

'Microwave analysis detects heat radiation intensity from inside the body, its wavelength just slightly shorter than television waves,' Dr Land said. Instead of the old-fashioned stethoscope bell, a radio aerial is used. Instead of a tube, wires connected to a radio receiver pick up the microwave signals; a computer displays and stores the data. During clinical trials in Glasgow's Western and Royal infirmaries, microwave analysis has been used to develop patterns for healthy joints in rheumatology work. Patterns deviating from the norm have indicated joint diseases and offer an objective measurement of illness.

'Nothing is emitted or sent into the body, which means this technique is completely safe,' Dr Land said, adding that he and his colleagues had to accept there was a parallel with Dr McCoy's instrument, so perhaps science was catching up with science fiction.