MRI Technology Continues To Evolve

MRI Technology Continues To Evolve

A new way to magnetize molecules naturally in the human body has been recently developed by researchers, paving way for a new generation of low-cost MRI technology that could also provide an interesting alternative to CT.

The technology behind MRI is still based on generating a powerful magnetic field. Although the basic technology and hardware designs have dramatically improved, most of the recent advances have been on the software and computing side, allowing faster and more accurate scans with greater detail. Overall improvements in imaging quality mean that physicians can pinpoint even tiny structures and processes in a living, breathing human being. Interestingly enough, breathing and lung tissues were sometimes difficult to scan because they are filled with air. Air has a relatively low density and, therefore, was not always easy to image during the short stages of breathing. Newer technology has worked around this to increase the accuracy and detail of scans of all forms of tissue, including the lungs.

Besides being faster, scans have also become much safer. Because an MRI does not rely on ionizing radiation in the same way that X-rays do, it is considered minimally invasive and safe overall. Even so, newer MRI technology has increased patient comfort, produced breathtakingly clear images, and dramatically cut down the time required to perform an MRI. Additionally, newer MRIs are less noisy, reducing the sounds to ambient background noise rather than loud clicks and whirring noises that some patients find uncomfortable. Open MRIs also offer a more open field to reduce any anxiety caused by feeling confined.

Indian market dynamics

The Indian MRI equipment market for 2018 is estimated at Rs 1700 crore, and 346 units, by volume. It continues to be dominated by Siemens, GE, and Philips. Toshiba and Hitachi are the other aggressive brands.

The premium systems, 3T and 1.5T continue to dominate the market with an approximately 89 percent combined share, by value. The discerning customer continues his drive to upgrade the 1.5T systems to 3T MRI systems. The 7T systems continue to evade the Indian market. The 0.2–0.5T MRI machines and refurbished machines cater to the cost-conscious smaller hospitals all over the country.

The sector may soon see an indigenous MRI machine, which could be much cheaper than those made by Philips and GE. The government is working on the first Made in India MRI machine, the prototype of which is soon expected. Once that is ready, it will take around one more year to make it market-ready with all the required processes such as quality check and trial runs.

Research update

Researchers have developed a new way to magnetize molecules found naturally in the human body, paving the way for a new generation of low-cost MRI technology that would transform ability to diagnose and treat diseases including cancer, diabetes, and dementia.

While still in the early stages, research reported in the journal Science Advances has made significant steps toward a new MRI method with the potential to enable doctors to personalize life-saving medical treatments, and allow real-time imaging to take place in locations, such as operating theaters and GP practices.

MRI, which works by detecting the magnetism of molecules to create an image, is a crucial tool in medical diagnostics. However, current technology is not very efficient – a typical hospital scanner will effectively detect only one molecule in every 200,000, making it difficult to see the full picture of what is happening in the body. Trials are being conducted on improved scanners in various countries, but because they operate in the same way as regular MRI scanners – using a superconducting magnet – these new models remain bulky and cost millions to buy. The research team, based at the University of York, has discovered a way to make molecules more magnetic and, therefore, more visible – an alternative method, which could produce a new generation of low-cost and highly sensitive imaging techniques.

The research team has found a way to transfer the invisible magnetism of parahydrogen – a magnetic form of hydrogen gas – into an array of molecules that occur naturally in the body, such as glucose, urea, and pyruvate. Using ammonia as a carrier, the researchers have been able to hyperpolarize substances, such as glucose, without changing their chemical composition, which would risk them becoming toxic.

It is now theoretically possible that these magnetized, non-harmful substances could be injected into the body and visualized. Because the molecules have been hyperpolarized, there would be no need to use a superconducting magnet to detect them – smaller, cheaper magnets, or even just the Earth’s magnetic field would suffice. If the method were to be successfully developed, it could enable a molecular response to be seen in real time and the low-cost, nontoxic nature of the technique would introduce the possibility of regular and repeated scans for patients. These factors would improve the ability of the medical profession to monitor and personalize treatments, possibly resulting in more successful outcomes for individuals.

The research also has the potential to bring MRI to countries in the developing world that do not have the uninterrupted power supplies or infrastructure to operate current scanners. As well as its applications in medicine and general healthcare, the method could also provide benefits to the chemical and pharmaceutical industries in addition to environmental and molecular science.

Way forward

The field is still wide open. There is still a lot of potential for new algorithms and exploiting other characteristics of MRI. There is a fundamental limit of signal-to-noise ratio. At some point, one has to sample long enough to get it. But every time researchers think they have had a lot of innovation in MRI and it is maturing, something new comes along. So, it would not be correct to say industry is there. What is even more exciting is, if MRI scan times can be reduced to no more than a few minutes, it has the potential to play an even bigger role in diagnosing and treating more conditions and diseases. MRI, which does not require ionizing radiation, could be a very interesting alternative for CT, especially when one combined with artificial intelligence and adaptive algorithms.

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