Quicker diagnoses thanks to medical imaging boost
Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI is a routine medical technique used to form pictures of the inner workings of the body for diagnosis. An EU-funded project seeks to massively boost the information MRI can deliver to doctors - potentially helping them to better diagnose and treat patients.
© David J. Lurie, 2018
Many diseases and medical conditions including cancer and osteoarthritis, are inadequately diagnosed, or are not diagnosed early enough through current MRI methods.
The University of Aberdeen in the UK has pioneered a novel MRI technique that involves rapidly switching the magnetic field during the collection of images. The technique, known as Fast Field-Cycling (FFC), provides new levels of contrast in an MRI image with a potential to improve the diagnosis and monitoring of a wide range of conditions.
However, many challenges need to be resolved before widespread clinical adoption of the technique. The EU-funded IDENTIFY project seeks to resolve the issues and bring the technique to a point where it can be used routinely as part of MRI diagnoses.
Innovations developed by the project have already led to the scanner being usable in initial patient studies. These include developments in the scanner electronics, software and power supplies, better characterisation of environmental magnetic fields and their correction, improved image processing algorithms.
Improvements in the scanner technology have already enabled us to start imaging patients, says project coordinator David Lurie from the University of Aberdeen. Specifically, we are imaging patients who have suffered from an acute ischaemic stroke.
The images obtained through the FFC technique show the stroke-affected area of the brain more clearly than the existing gold standard method of X-ray Computed Tomography (CT) scanning, says Lurie.
It is incredibly exciting to have imaged our first patients, he says. This is a major step towards our technology being adopted by hospitals to benefit patients, which is the ultimate goal of our research.
The research team hope that the extra information coming from the FFC technique will help doctors better delineate the brain tissue around the stroke-affected part of the brain, helping to plan treatment and monitor recovery.
We are working to discover how the FFC images compare to those from standard MRI scanners, he adds.
Aberdeen has a long relationship with MRI technology. In the late 1970s, a research team at the university built the first full-body MRI scanner and used it to obtain the first clinically useful image of a patient.
FFC could be a paradigm-shifting technology which will generate new, quantitative disease biomarkers, directly informing and improving clinical diagnosis, treatment decisions and treatment monitoring, says Lurie. It is also a relatively low-cost technology and therefore contributes to healthcare sustainability.
Because FFC scanners can switch their magnetic field, it is almost like having 100 different MRI scanners in one, he explains. This gives an extra dimension to the data collected from each patient, greatly expanding the diagnostic potential.
Several technical challenges need to be overcome to bring the technology to market. These include improving the scanner itself so that the images are not adversely affected by the switching of the magnetic field; this involves improving the stability of the scanners magnet through improved electronics.
Another challenge is to better understand the origin of the signals that are collected to build up the images, in particular to discover how the variation of the signals as a function of magnetic field is related to the disease-induced changes in the tissues of the brain or the body. The project ends in December 2019.