Mayo Ready To Test Compact MRI Machine
A pair of Mayo Clinic researchers hoping to revolutionize how magnetic resonance imaging is used to scan the brain for a host of neurological and psychiatric disorders this month are celebrating the arrival of a long-anticipated prototype of a compact MRI machine in Rochester, five years after receiving a federal grant.
Drs. John Huston III and Matt Bernstein said they were “popping the corks” last week after the installation of the first-of-its-kind small MRI scanner, developed in conjunction with GE Global Research after the effort was awarded a $5.7 million government research grant in 2011. The resulting compact but powerful 3-Tesla scanner – only one-third the size of traditional machines – was placed in the Charlton North Building on Mayo's Rochester campus in early March.
They say the new brain scanner could be revolutionary: While both lighter and thus less expensive than traditional full-body scanners (it represents a 3-time reduction in weight), it’s also being touted as speedier and more efficient. With radiology comprising an estimated 10 percent of the nation’s healthcare spending – or $270 billion per year – the government is betting that taxpayer funds spent to develop a new generation of smaller MR machines could help lower healthcare costs long-term while also enhancing their medical uses, especially for brain scanning.
Huston, a neuroradiologist, and Bernstein, a medical physicist, said that with the delivery of the prototype from GE, their role is now beginning – namely to test its potential in expanding what MRI can tell doctors about such disorders as aneurisms, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain disorder, depression and autism.
“GE did its part by developing this groundbreaking technology, and now there’s a lot of excitement here as we jump in and actually begin doing the research,” Huston said. “We’re going to perform head scans on at least 300 volunteers.
“Basically, there are two major projects. One is a clinical validation that this device is just as good as a standard, whole-body MR machine. So we’ll be directly comparing patients that have an exam on an existing scanner and do the same exam on our compact scanner and just compare image quality. We are highly confident that it’s at least good.”
The other, more exciting aspect of the research will be testing out and quantifying the extent to which the prototype make can make a quantum leap in the speed of delivery for high-quality magnetic images.
“Because of its smaller size, it doesn’t use as much electricity and there aren’t the ‘speed limits’ that exist on whole-body scanners,” Bernstein said. “The really interesting thing will be to figure out how to take advantage of the higher-speed hardware.”
The prototype is part of an emerging trend toward the specialization of MRI technology. Current whole-body scanners remain very valuable but are a “one-size-fits-all” kind of technology. They have no ability to perform the kind of functions that could be achieved by a scanner specially designed to image small areas of the body, such as the brain. Based on new kind of lightweight magnet developed by GE, along with advanced gradient technology, it permits high-resolution MR images of the human brain that are of much higher quality and produced at greater speeds than traditional whole-body systems.
The hope is the Mayo tests will produce brain images that could give physicians much more accurate and reliable information in assessing neurological disorders, Huston said.
“What we’re going to determine is if these images will allow us to more robustly find the changes in the brain associated with neurological diseases,” he said.
The 2011 grant from the National Institutes of Health was given not only because of the effort’s promise to improve treatment of brain disorders, but also to expand the availability of MRI technology generally. The introduction of compact MRI systems could address more than 40 percent of all the imaging conducted today, while at the same time moving the bulky contraptions out of big-city hospitals and into smaller community hospitals and rural settings.
Thus, the hope is healthcare costs could also be reduced by producing smaller, less expensive MR machines and by bringing the technology closer to where patients can access it, no matter where they live.
Meanwhile, should the compact MRI technology prove feasible, it could expand the universe of medical disciplines that may benefit from imaging. For instance, a local application for Mayo could be its touted new proton beam cancer therapy program, in which magnetic images of tumors are used to determine with geometric accuracy where doctors should aim their proton streams in a bid to zap cancer cells but spare nearby healthy tissue.
Bernstein said that process could be greatly aided by the prototype because its technology has demonstrated it can reduce distortion near the near the edges of the images.