Ian Cunningham



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

Paramount to achieving optimal benefits from the use of diagnostic imaging is ensuring the benefits of each procedure outweigh the risks.  In diagnostic radiography this is achieved by providing the best diagnostic information while exposing patients to low acceptable exposures.  Working with graduate students in the Department of Medical Biophysics and the Biomedical Engineering program, and building on a background of formal training in Engineering and Physics, Dr Cunningham's overall goal is the training of highly-skilled personnel in science and engineering through a research program at the Robarts Research Institute aimed at novel advances in a cross-disciplinary approach to the development of new detectors and applications in diagnostic radiography.

High-quality medical care requires the use of high-quality medical images.  This can be achieved using low patient exposures only with the development and use of high-DQE (detective quantum efficiency) detectors.  To achieve high-DQE detector designs, and building on an early contribution by Van Metter et al., Dr. Cunningham's group is responsible for developing much of what is called “cascaded-systems theory” - a set of design principles to incorporate advanced concepts of signal and noise in the development of new detectors for digital radiography and CT.  These principles are now widely used by scientists and design engineers in both academic and commercial laboratories around the world.  It is also necessary to ensure detectors are validated and maintained to ensure high DQE standards.  Working with CIHR proof-of-principle funding, Dr. Cunningham's group developed an instrument to make DQE evaluations accessible to a wide base of scientists, engineers and hospital end users.  In partnership with the Robarts Research Institute, the Lawson Research Institute and The University of Western Ontario, they subsequently patented this technology and founded a start-up company to manufacture and sell a commercial instrument that is now used by major manufacturers and leading hospitals in Canada, USA, Europe and Asia for use in research, manufacturing, and quality assurance.  Their goal is to make DQE testing sufficiently simple, accurate, fast and robust that it will be widely adopted in QA programs by end users to ensure patients receive the benefits of high-quality imaging with the very lowest possible radiation exposures.

A second theme in their program is the development of composition imaging which is critical in many disease processes.  For example, plaque composition is linked to thrombosis risk and the vulnerable atherosclerotic plaque, while metabolic bone diseases, such as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, are directly linked to tissue distributions of hydroxyapatite and collagen.  They are exploiting the unique ability of using x-ray diffraction in tissues for the development of a novel molecular imaging technique that maps tissue composition at the atomic level using computed tomography.  Their new approach is currently being evaluated in the first clinical trial in the world that identifies the mineral composition at the core of kidney stones in order to direct personalized recurrence-prevention strategies and correlate stone composition with patient outcomes.

Research Questions

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


  • 2011 Annual Award for Academic Excellence, Awarded for Excellence in Research, Department of Medical Imaging, Western University
  • 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)


View all PubMed publications

Contact Info

Imaging Research Laboratories
Robarts Research Institute
1151 Richmond St. N.
London, Ontario, Canada N6A 5B7

Phone: 519-931-5757
Email: ian.cunningham@robarts.ca
Website: www.imaging.robarts.ca/icunningham/