ESRF user wins prestigious Rudolf Virchow Prize


ESRF user PD Dr Maximilian Ackermann has been awarded the prestigious Rudolf Virchow Prize by the German Pathology Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Pathologie, DGP) for his work using hierarchical phase-contrast tomography (HiP-CT) at beamlines BM05 and BM18.

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The award, which was presented at the DGP’s 105th annual conference in June, celebrates outstanding work in the field of pathology by researchers under the age of 40. Ackermann, from Johannes-Gutenberg University Mainz, and Helios University Clinics Wuppertal, in Germany, received the award for his work on the publication, “Imaging intact human organs with local resolution of cellular structures using hierarchical phase-contrast tomography (HiP-CT)”, published in Nature Methods in 2021 [1]. The paper describes the first use of HiP-CT for the non-destructive examination and analysis of complete human organs and individual tissues.

HiP-CT, a new, ultrahigh-resolution 3D imaging technique developed first at beamline BM05 and then honed at dedicated flagship beamline BM18, bridges the gap in medical imaging resolution between radiology and pathology. Thanks to the highly coherent X-rays supplied by the ESRF’s Extremely Brilliant Source (EBS), it can provide images of complete human organs with a resolution of 20 microns and then allow clinicians to zoom in anywhere down to 2 microns – a resolution more than a hundred times better than clinical computed tomography (CT) scans.

Dr. Ackermann, with his colleague Prof. Danny Jonigk, became interested in the technique in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, as a way to research the effects of the disease on human lungs using much higher resolution imaging than was previously possible. They joined forces with a team of collaborators from institutes including University College London (UCL) and the ESRF, using HiP-CT to demonstrate that COVID-19 was not just a respiratory disease but also a vascular disease that could affect organs across the entire body, which had been hypothesised but not proven. Following publication of the landmark results, and with support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the UCL-led team launched the Human Organ Atlas [2], an open-access library of detailed imagery of human organs, both healthy and diseased, to deepen understanding of human physiology and enable clinicians to more accurately diagnose and treat a wide range of diseases.

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The complex vascular system of the whole lung lobe of a 54-year-old male COVID-19 victim, imaged non-destructively in 3D using new technique HiP-CT [1,2]. (Credit P. Tafforeau/ESRF).

According to the jury, the promising research work can contribute to the identification of innovative therapies and offer new treatment perspectives. Dr. Ackermann is convinced of the pivotal role of HiP-CT for next-generation imaging:  "With the ESRF's HiP-CT technology, we are writing a new chapter of medical imaging that fills a vast gap between clinical radiology and diagnostic pathology. Our vision is to combine HiP-CT, clinical CT and MRI scans and histopathological data with novel genomic methods to improve the diagnostic approach of cancer, inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases by making the invisible visible," he said.

Dr. Ackermann’s research on COVID-19 using HiP-CT [3] was also recently featured on the cover of Deutsches Ärzteblatt, the official journal of the German Medical Association.

[1] Imaging intact human organs with local resolution of cellular structures using hierarchical phase-contrast tomography, C.L. Walsh et al., Nature Methods 18, 1532-1541 (2021);


[3] The Bronchial Circulation in COVID-19 Pneumonia, M. Ackermann et al., American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 205(1), 121-125 (2022);

Top image: DGP chairman Professor Gustavo Baretton (left) presenting PD Dr Maximilian Ackermann (right) with his award. Photo: Leßmann/DGP, Münster 2022.