In order to realize consistent growth, a company must conduct pre-competitive research focusing on areas where even the needs and problems remain unclear.
Canon not only engages in research and development for its cameras and other current products, including related elemental technologies, as well as common platform technologies, but also actively pursues long-term research that requires a decade or more to produce results. The results garnered from such research activities are used to acquire patents and publish academic papers and, after evaluating competitiveness, the technology is further developed for Canon's future business.
Canon is now focusing on three research topics: Terahertz (THz) Imaging, which enables imaging on the inside of an object; Digital Mass Microscopy, which enables the visualization of the distribution of living substances to support pathological diagnosis; and a Skin Gas Sensing technology, which helps diagnosis at a very early stage based on component analysis of gas released from the skin. In addition, Canon is highly regarded for its research across a wide range of other fields, with scientific societies around the world often requesting the company to make presentations. The company is taking on the challenge of creating seeds of technology to build new markets through true technological innovation.
To date, research into electromagnetic waves with frequencies of 100 GHz or lower has focused on communications applications, while research into those with frequencies of 10 THz or higher has concentrated on optical technologies. In recent years, however, an unexplored frequency region called Terahertz (THz), which lies between radio waves and visible light, has come to the fore.
THz radiation is noteworthy for its ability to pass through materials and discern between different material types. THz radiation passes through paper, cloth and even thin concrete layers in the same way as radio waves. When passing through a material, THz radiation leave a spectral fingerprint made up of an array of material-specific absorption bands and reflection bands, which help to identify the material.
Many sectors have high expectations for THz radiation as a useful imaging technology for its ability to make the invisible visible. THz radiation offers a wide range of applications, including the detection of organic substances in food packages, non-intrusive quality checking of products and such medical-related uses as blood testing, pathological diagnosis of cancer cells, and quality checking of pill-form medicinal drugs.
Compared with other frequency ranges, the practical use of THz radiation, which offers a variety of valuable applications, has lagged for a number of reasons. One such reason has been the lack of light-emitting devices capable of producing a light source for THz radiation.
Recognizing the imaging possibilities of THz radiation, Canon has been pursuing the development of a light-emitting device from an early stage. Through many years of R&D based on process technologies accumulated through the design and development of semiconductor laser devices, the company has succeeded in generating THz radiation on semiconductor chips. Canon created a surface-emitting chip capable of emitting THz radiation from a chip surface using a patch antenna. The surface-emitting design allows higher output compared with conventional antenna configurations. The design also offers superior characteristics not offered by competitors, including the ability to emit waves continuously and operate at ordinary temperatures. With this success, Canon has won awards from the academic community both in Japan and overseas. Canon's THz light-emitting device is expected to accelerate the practical use of a wide region of THz radiation.
While medical imaging systems can detect what may appear to be cancer, a definitive diagnosis by pathologist is required. A pathological diagnosis determines the extent to which the cancer has spread, whether surgery resulted in the complete removal of the lesion, whether the cancer is likely to metastasize, and which types of medicine may be effective.
A typical pathological diagnosis consists of placing specimens such as tissue and cells on a glass slide for a pathologist to observe the cell morphology and alignment. In diagnosing a breast cancer or stomach cancer, a pathologist investigates the abnormal expression of proteins in the cancer cells. The results on the abnormal expression provide a guide for selecting the patient's postoperative care. As pathology also encompasses the precise study of possible causes of a disease, it contributes to fundamental medical research.
Recently, a lot of progress has been made in of the research field of mass microscopy (imaging mass spectrometry). Unlike conventional microscopes, which detect rays of light or electrons, a mass microscope detects a mass of molecules and reconstructs its spectrum to form an image, allowing users to identify the two-dimensional distribution of substances in tissues. The most significant feature of mass microscopy is its ability to comprehensively detect numerous substances in tissues at one time.
Currently, testing for the presence of specific proteins in cancer cells involves the staining of antibodies, but this technique can only detect three or four kinds of protein at most in a given sample. In addition, small (low molecular weight) molecules are known to contribute to carcinogenesis, but there are currently no methods for visualizing these molecules.
Since examining the shape and function of individual cells is important in pathological diagnosis, Canon is focusing on TOF-SIMS (Time of Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry) technology which gives a high spatial resolution. TOF-SIMS analyzes the mass of secondary ions by measuring their time of flight, after irradiating a sample with primary ions.
To date, Canon has successfully developed methods for enhancing the TOF-SIMS detection sensitivity and reducing the noise in mass image. The above findings were presented at the meeting of the Japanese Society of Pathology in April 2012 and the International Mass Spectrometry Conference in September 2012. Canon's mass microscope is aiming to provide a novel mass visualization method oriented to not only pathological diagnosis, but also development of molecularly targeted drugs and so on.
Canon has been working to develop a technology called Skin Gas Sensing, which makes possible the diagnosis of diseases by detecting and analyzing specific trace components released from the skin. For example, in the case of diabetes, the gas released from the skin contains a higher level of acetone than with a disease-free individual, and research has also shown that patients with a certain type of cancer emit a substance known as dimethyl trisulfide.
Through joint research with medical research institutes, Canon has successfully identified around 100 types of skin gas components and is working to identify correlations between these components and diseases in the near future. To develop this technology as a diagnostic tool, Canon is establishing criteria for determining diseases and is also reviewing skin gas sensing methods.
In the future, when diseases can be diagnosed based on skin gas sensing, it may be possible to discover illnesses without taking blood samples or conducting other painful examinations. In addition, when the sensing and analysis systems are substantially reduced in size and weight, it may be possible to monitor patients in the comfort of their homes at any time of day, enabling Canon's skin gas sensing technology to become an essential everyday tool for healthy living.