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First beamtime for the Human Organ Atlas Hub (HOAHub)


Today marks the launch of the Human Organ Atlas Hub (HOAHub) – an imaging research project led by UCL Mechanical Engineering, based on the use of the Extremely Brilliant Source at the ESRF.

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The Human Organ Atlas Hub (HOAHub) was launched today, with the first beamtime experiments beginning at the ESRF. Led by UCL Mechanical Engineering’s Professor Peter Lee and Dr Claire Walsh, and based on the capabilities of the ESRF- Extremely Brilliant Source, this project aims to strengthen the international scientific collaboration to further study human organs in unprecedented detail.

This Hub is part of the new access models implemented at the ESRF  in order to facilitate access to the facility for researchers working in fields of key societal impact and to strengthen international collaboration to produce more impactful science. The HOAHub consists of an international team from eight institutes – comprised of a mixture of engineers, medics, educators, pathologists, cardiologists and more –, aiming to use transformational X-ray tomography technology to scan whole human organs, and eventually our entire body, to an extremely high resolution – estimated resolution to be approaching one fiftieth of a human hair.

The team led by Peter Lee and Claire Walsh at UCL Mechanical Engineering partnered with Dr Paul Tafforeau at the ESRF, together with Drs Max Ackermann and Danny Jonigk from Aachen, to co-develop a new scanning technique, named Hierarchal Phase-Contract Tomography (HiP-CT). The technology enables whole intact organs to be examined at multiple scales all the way down to the cellular level. The scans can be created with a resolution of 25 microns, which is around twenty times the resolution of a clinical CT scanner and then small regions can be zoomed in on at <1 micron resolution, which is five hundred times the resolution of a CT scanner.

The HiP-CT technique arose in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, when clinicians wanted to study quantitatively the damage done by the virus to human lungs. The landmark results, proving that COVID-19 was not just a respiratory disease, but also a vascular disease that could affect organs across the entire body, were published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Background behind the HOAHub project

So far, the varying biomedical imaging techniques have not been able to show body parts in a detailed enough resolution. For example, computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resource imaging (MRI) both create images in millimetre resolution, whilst using a microscope to examine a biopsy only shows a tiny part of a whole organ. It has been impossible to create images of entire human organs with micro resolution – until now.

The solution to this problem initially stems from an imaging technique developed at the ESRF for palaeontology, with tomographic technology that scans fossils and ancient human skulls. This idea to use X-ray tomography technology was also assisted in 2020 by the development of the ESRF’s Extremely Brilliant Source (EBS), allowing to scan larger soft samples like human organs in a new level of detail.

Creating the Human Organ Atlas

The project so far has created 3D images of over 50 organs, including lungs, brains, hearts, kidneys, spleens and livers. The long-term aim is to establish an open science image database of all human organs in health and disease (

The HOAHub will enable an accelerated development of the HiP-CT technique and allow groups worldwide to use the technique. The HOAHub aims to solve key biomedical challenges and translate the findings to clinical applications and histology labs, as well as correlate up and down imaging scales and modalities. The HOAHub will create an open network of imaging by having all results open access for scientists, medics and students worldwide to use. It will help to create a synergistic and interdisciplinary group that exchanges ideas and resources (both physical and software-based) to create an efficient pipeline for Hierarchal Phase-Contract Tomography (HiP-CT), with the aim to answer some of the most important global biomedical questions.

The project is co-funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) 



C.L. Walsh et al., Nature Methods (2021).

M. Ackermann et al., American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (2022);

The Human Organ Atlas website

HiP-CT website:

Top image: Composite image of organs. Credit: Paul Tafforeau data and UCL led ESRF beamtimes md1252.