Ian Cunningham, PhD, FCCPM, FAAPM

Ian Cunningham, Robarts Scientist

Why I Became a Scientist

We all pursue directions in life that give us the greatest satisfaction. My greatest satisfaction comes from combining physics and engineering principles with a love of developing new ideas and concepts to do things no-one has done before – and nowhere is this more rewarding than in the development of new ideas for medical imaging. Medical imaging in all its forms provides information on diseases and disease processes that have revolutionized medical practice over the past 30 years. Following studies in engineering physics (Queen’s), nuclear physics (McMaster) and medical physics (Toronto), I have been fortunate to work as a scientist at Robarts and the Lawson Health Research Institute to explore and develop ideas that are continuing to push the frontiers of medical imaging.

Research Summary

Dr. Cunningham’s research interests consist of two programs: the development of advanced theories and concepts required to improve the radiation safety and image quality of digital radiography, and the development of composition imaging – a new method of characterizing disease to improve diagnoses and treatments.

Due to health risks from exposure to radiation, and risks due to inconclusive or misleading diagnoses, it is critical that x-ray imaging systems used in hospitals around the world produce high-quality images using the lowest possible levels of radiation. Unfortunately, most systems do not yet achieve this. Dr. Cunningham’s group is developing advanced mathematical theories and concepts that describe the link between detector design and detector performance so that new digital systems will produce high-quality images with the lowest possible radiation exposure to the patient.

In his second program, Dr. Cunningham is developing what is called “Compositional Imaging” for improved disease assessment. For example, the composition of atherosclerotic plaques is linked to the risk of rupture and stroke, and some metabolic bone diseases are directly linked to the distributions of hydroxyapatite and collagen. Dr. Cunningham is exploiting the unique ability of x-ray diffraction in tissues for the development of a novel molecular imaging technique that maps tissue composition at the atomic level using a method developed at Robarts called coherent-scatter computed tomography. This method is currently being evaluated in the first clinical trial anywhere that identifies the mineral at the core of kidney stones in order to direct personalized recurrence-prevention strategies and correlate stone composition with patient outcomes.

Research Questions and Disease Implications

How must the design of x-ray detectors used for digital radiography be changed to produce better images with less radiation?

Improved image quality affects all diseases and diagnoses benefiting from medical radiography. Reduced x-ray exposures reduce the risk of radiation-induced effects such as cancer.

How can we exploit the unique diffraction characteristics of many tissue types to identify composition and help disease diagnoses and treatment?

Composition of tissue plays an important role in many diseases, such as atherscloerosis, metabolic bone diseases including osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, and in the treatment of urinary calculi.


• 1978 BSc Engineering Physics, Queen’s University
• 1981 MSc Physics, McMaster University
• 1986 PhD Medical Biophsyics, University of Toronto


- F.C.C.P.M. Fellow, Canadian College of Physicists in Medicine


• 2009 Radiological Society of North America Trainee Award (with student Saul Friedman)
• 2008 Lawson Innovation Prize
• 2007 Best Paper, World Congress of Endourology (with G. Wignall)
• 2006 COMP Young Investigators Award Runner-up (with student S. Friedman)
• 2005 Elected to Fellow by the American Association of Physicists in Medicine
• 2003 Sylvia Fedoruk Prize (best paper of the year)
• 2003 Sylvia Fedoruk Prize Runner-up (best paper of the year)
• 2002 AAPM Young Investigators Award (with student D. Batchelar)
• 1999 COMP Young Investigators Award (with student D. Batchelar)
• 1998 Team Award of Excellence
• 1998 Sylvia Fedoruk Prize Runner-up (best paper of the year)
• 1997 Sylvia Sorkin Greenfield Award (best paper of the year)
• 1995 Sylvia Fedoruk Prize Runner-up (best paper of the year)
• 1995 SPIE Michael B. Merickel Award
• 1995 COMP Young Investigators Award Runner-up (with student M. Westmore)


• S.N. Friedman and I.A. Cunningham, The spatial-temporal detective quantum efficiency of fluoroscopic systems (Med Phys, submitted 2009).
• S.N. Friedman and I.A. Cunningham, A small-signal approach to the non-linear temporal modulation transfer function and its application to fluoroscopic detective quantum efficiency, Med Phys 36(8): 3775-3785 (2009).
• S.M. Yun, C.H. Lim, H.K. Kim, T. Graeve and I.A. Cunningham, Signal and noise characteristics induced by unattenuated x rays from a scintillator in indirect-conversion CMOS photodiode array detectors, IEEE Trans Nucl Sci 56(3): 1121-1128 (2009).
• S.R. Beath and I.A. Cunningham, Pseudomonoenergetic x-ray diffraction measurements using balanced filters for coherent-scatter computed tomography, Med Phys 36(5): 1839-47 (2009).
• G. Wignall, J. Denstedt and I.A. Cunningham. Coherent scatter computed tomography for structural and compositional stone analysis: a prospective comparison with infrared spectroscopy, J Endourol 23(3): 351-7 (2009).
• H.K. Kim, I.A. Cunningham, Z. Yin and G. Cho, On the development of digital radiography detectors, Int J Precision Engineering and Manufacturing 9(4): 86-100 (2008).
• S. Friedman and I.A. Cunningham. Normalization of the modulation transfer function: The open-field approach, Med Phys 35(10): 4443-49 (2008).
• R. Akbarpour, S.N. Friedman, J.H. Siewerdsen, J.D. Neary and I.A. Cunningham, Signal and noise transfer in spatiotemporal quantum-based imaging systems, Virtual Journal for Biomedical Optics, http://vjbo.osa.org/virtual_issuecfm (2008)
• G. Hajdok, J.J. Battista and I.A. Cunningham, Fundamental x-ray interaction limits in diagnostic imaging detectors: Frequency-dependent Swank noise, Med Phys 35(7): 3194-3204 (2008).
• G. Hajdok, J.J. Battista and I.A. Cunningham, Fundamental x-ray interaction limits in diagnostic imaging detectors: Spatial resolution, Med Phys 35(7): 3180-93 (2008).
• S.N. Friedman and I.A. Cunningham, A moving slanted-edge method to measure the temporal modulation transfer function of fluoroscopic systems, Med Phys 35(6): 2473-84 (2008).

Contact Information

Imaging Research Laboratories
Robarts Research Institute
1151 Richmond St. N.
London, Ontario, Canada N6A 5B7
519-931-5757 ian.cunningham@robarts.ca