Researchers in New Zealand have captured three-dimensional color X-rays, using an innovative tool that may eventually help diagnose cancers and blood diseases without surgery.

The new scanner has its origins in a tool that contributed to research into the universe’s fundamental particles and functions much like a camera. It counts subatomic particles as they meet pixels when its electronic shutter is open. That allows it to generate high-resolution images of soft tissues, including minute disease markers.

“We can make out details of various tissues, like bones, fats, water and cartilage, all functioning together,” said Anthony Butler, a radiologist who developed the scanner with his father, Phil Butler, a physicist. “It’s a whole new X-ray experience.”

In traditional computed tomography, or CT scans, X-ray beams are measured after passing through human tissue. The resulting image appears white where dense bone tissue has absorbed the beams, and black where softer tissues have not.

The new scanner matches individual X-ray photon wavelengths to specific materials and assigns a color to the scanned objects. The tool then translates the data into a 3-D image.

The technology could contribute to advances in cancer drug development and to understanding heart disease and bone health. It could serve as “a diagnostic road map to a destination,” said Dr. Gary E. Friedlaender, an orthopedic surgeon at Yale University.