Thomas Edison’s light bulb patent was 16 years old when his colleague and GE co-founder Elihu Thomson modified his electric lamp technology and developed an early X-ray machine that allowed doctors to diagnose bone fractures and locate “foreign objects in the body.” The machine, which Thomson built just one year after Wilhelm Roentgen discovered and tested X-rays on his wife, launched GE into the healthcare business.
Today, GE Healthcare, which generated $18 billion in 2013 revenues, makes everything from magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRIs) to “4D” ultrasound scanners, super-resolution microscopes and bioreactors. Some of the technology is currently on display at the 100th annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), the industry’s “Grand Slam” gathering and tradeshow drawing some 55,000 visitors and exhibitors every year. According to GE, it is the only company that attended the inaugural meeting in 1914 and also the centennial this week.
This year, GE arrived with a new 3D mammography system called SenoClaire. 3D breast screening technology helps clinicians uncover small cancers, which can be a limiting factor in standard 2D mammography. There is also no increase in dose from a 2D standard mammogram to a 3D view, which means there is no increased radiation to patients during a SenoClaire breast exam.
The company also brought its fast Revolution CT machine, which can image the heart in just one heartbeat. The system uses high-resolution and motion correcting technology similar to the image stabilization features in personal cameras. The blend of speed and clarity allows doctors to retrieve sharper images with higher resolution at lower radiation doses.
These machines draw on decades of research and commercial development starting with Thomson’s fluoroscope, the world’s first commercially available X-ray machine. In 1932, GE’s Irving Langmuir won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work that led to early coronary artery imaging. In 1973, his colleague Ivar Giaever received the Nobel Prize in Physics for research that led to the first GE MRI machine a decade later.
GE also employed Charles Gros and Emile Gabbay, who in the 1960s developed a mammography machine and an X-ray tube that made it possible to image soft tissue with higher resolution.
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