The revolutionary medical research project PHeLINet has not only created openings for doctors to better diagnose cancer, asthma, cystic fibrosis and other lung diseases, but it has expanded the professional horizons for budding scientists like Guilhem Collier.
© Fotolia, 2013
Along a journey that has taken him from his homeland of France to Poland and then on to the UK, Collier says the support he received from the European Union (EU)'s Marie Curie Actions (MCAs) programme of support for the mobility of researchers, has presented him with opportunities that otherwise may have passed him by.
"This has been one of the best opportunities I could have had – for many reasons," Collier said. "The good thing is that you have a lot of contacts and more ways to collaborate. We learned a lot from many different partners throughout Europe, spending one month a year at different institutions. I was really happy with the programme – everyone was."
Collier was working in the biochip field at the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission in Grenoble when he heard about the Marie Curie programme – by accident, he says. "I didn't really know much about it. It turned out to be one of the best scholarships that you can get."
Aided by the scholarship, Collier entered a physics PhD programme at Jagiellonian University in Krakow in 2007. While there for three years, he played a key role in PHeLINet – the Polarised Helium Lung Imaging Network. The project's team worked to design and develop new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques for diagnosing lung ailments.
Conventional MRI, which uses magnetic fields to produce three-dimensional images of organs, bones and tissues, have long been an effective, non-invasive diagnostic tool for medical professionals. The presence of water in the body, however, is needed in order for an MRI to work. The problem is that lungs do not contain very much water. "That was the challenge – using MRI to examine lungs," Collier says.
The PHeLINet team worked to improve a technique in which the patient breathes in polarised helium, which the MRI scanner can then detect. By improving MRI scans of lungs, diseases could be better understood, detected and treated early – thus saving lives.
Collier's task, supported by the Marie Curie programme, was to speed the production of helium gas and with higher levels of polarisation. He completed his PhD at Jagiellonian University in 2011, and the university continues to use the equipment he used for the PHeLINet project. Collier has since moved on to the UK's University of Sheffield, where he obtained a post-doctorate position to continue his research on the helium MRI technique. Though his background is in physics, Collier's work on PHeLINet has steered him toward the medical field. "I would like to stay in this area," he said.
Collier was one of 18 young researchers – 11 PhD students and seven post-docs – who worked on PHeLINet from 2007 to 2011. The project recorded a variety of significant breakthroughs related to human applications, animal investigations, MRI instrumentation and methodologies, and helium polarisation techniques, said PHeLINet coordinator Yannick Crémillieux, who was at the University of Lyon at the time.
Crémillieux said the project shaped the students into professionals. "In the end, they were trained scientists – independent and autonomous. They held a scientific workshop to present their research. They had to organise the event, find the funding – everything."
PHeLINet's results and findings have been written up in dozens of journal articles, book chapters and conference proceedings – well over 150 in total. The project also contributed to a spin-off company and a pending patent, as well as training sessions and international workshops.