Scanning the pharaohs: Ancient Egypt comes to Chicago

By Philip Ward, AuntMinnieEurope.com staff writer

December 3, 2019 -- Ever wondered what it's like to work as a paleoradiologist? Hundreds of RSNA 2019 delegates found out on Tuesday, when a leading expert in imaging of ancient Egyptian mummies and other antiquities played a central role in a plenary session about the achievements of the country's radiologists.

"I wanted to show the attendees what it is like to be a paleoradiologist and what they can do if they choose to be one," Dr. Sahar Saleem, a professor of neuroradiology in Cairo who also specializes in CT mummy imaging, told AuntMinnie.com. "I am excavating and doing the scans inside the tombs and underground, and also supporting the museum's conservation plan, indexing, and research."

3D CT image of the profile of Thuya
This 3D CT image of the profile of Thuya (great grandmother of Tutankhamun) depicts her facial features, including the two openings in her ear lobe for earrings, which was in vogue at the time. All images courtesy of Dr. Sahar Saleem and Dr. Zahi Hawass.

The huge variety of a paleoradiologist's work is underlined by her recent projects.

During 2019, Saleem has performed scans 30 meters underground, inside the shaft of the Saqqara Satie complex, an ancient burial ground that includes many pyramids, and examined the royal mummies of the New Kingdom. In addition, she has produced CT scans of canopic jars used by the ancient Egyptians during the mummification process to store and preserve the viscera of their owner for the afterlife, evaluated three mummies discovered recently inside their wooden coffins in a cache at Al-Asasif cemetery on Luxor's west bank, and studied a mummy housed at the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CT.

Golden sandals
A 3D CT image of the golden sandals worn by Thuya that were hidden beneath her wrappings -- a discovery made by Saleem from this CT study.

She also serves as a committee member for the Ministry of Antiquities, which designs the exhibitions at Egypt's museums, and helps to educate radiologists and the public about paleoradiology. She is now head of the Egyptian School of Radiology, a nonprofit educational organization for radiologists, radiographers, and other healthcare workers.

Saleem started working with mummies in 2004, when she was doing a fellowship in neuroradiology in London, Ontario, Canada, and a fellowship in radiology education at the University of Western Ontario.

"On my first day at the hospital, an ancient Egyptian mummy was on the CT table," she recalled. "I was determined to be able to work on it, so I joined the very active paleopathology and mummy research group at the university and received very good practical experience on ancient skeletons and mummies."

Sons of Horus
A 3D CT image shows the four sons of Horus within the chest of Ramses III. The head of each statue is depicted in the 3D reconstruction: a human, baboon, jackal, and falcon.

More than 100 Egyptian radiologists are attending this week's congress, according to Dr. Tarek El-Diasty, who moderated and introduced the session. He also received honorary membership of RSNA 2019.

"I have adopted a case-based approach because we have many interesting radiology subspecialties with very good level of expertise and high-caliber speakers," he told AuntMinnie.com. "A lot of Egyptian speakers are very willing to participate in such an important session. The solution is to plan multiple, five-minute, case-based presentations to allow almost all subspecialties to be represented with one or two speakers each. There are a total of 15 speakers."

In Egypt, the number of active, registered radiologists is around 5,150, of whom 3,600 are members of the Egyptian Society of Radiology and Nuclear Medicine (ESRNM). There are 567 radiology departments, of which 258 are specialized radiology centers.

Dr. Tarek El-Diasty
Dr. Tarek El-Diasty is an honorary member of RSNA 2019 and was president of the ESRNM from 2012 to 2018.

The nation has around 4,000 ultrasound scanners, more than 3,000 x-ray machines, over 1,000 mammography units, 450 CT scanners, 160 MRI units, 105 angiography suites, and 12 PET/CT scanners, noted El-Diasty, who is president of the African Society of Radiology and an emeritus professor of radiology at Mansoura University in Egypt.

He thinks Egyptian radiology faces the following main challenges:

  • There's a lack of an applicable plan for continuing education, which leads to younger radiologists being unaware of how the learning process is going to continue.
  • Professional training using advanced tools is localized and limited to certain hospitals due to a relatively low number of such tools in comparison to the number of radiologists.
  • Younger radiologists face difficulties in external training. Very few opportunities for joining radiology fellowship programs are available to Egyptian radiologists in developed countries.
  • Research is not widely practiced in universities, teaching hospitals, and governmental hospitals. As many as 60% of radiologists in Egypt have not been engaged in any research activity due to limited capacity or a lack of mentoring and motivation.
  • Most younger radiologists are not members of the international radiology societies, and they suffer from the lack of membership benefits.

"The ESRNM thus proposes setting up a plan with clear methods of application, instructing radiologists and setting up orientation meetings to be done by the training committees all over Egypt," he concluded.


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