Innovative MRI Machine Makes Imaging Possible For More Patients

Ramin Eskandari, M.D.

by Kat Hendrix

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has long been the gold standard for obtaining non-invasive, highly detailed, three-dimensional (3-D) images of the anatomy. At healthcare centers around the world, MRI is one of the most commonly used technologies for diagnosing disease and monitoring treatment – not only does it produce clearer images of soft tissues like tendons and ligaments than x-rays or computed tomography (CT), but MRI can even differentiate between white and grey matter in the brain. Another advantage over x-rays and CTs is that MRI machines do not use hazardous ionizing radiation, making it more suitable for patients who need frequent scans.

But there's a catch. MRI machines are enormous – both in physical size and cost. Because MRI uses giant magnets to produce the image, a typical superconducting scanner can weigh 10 to 35,000 pounds. In addition, nearby areas must be shielded from its energy field, and special cooling systems are needed to manage the intense heat MRI produces.

"You can't just simply put an MRI into a hospital after the place is built," explains Ramin Eskandari, M.D., associate professor of neurosurgery at MUSC. "They're so heavy and huge that you have to build a specially designed room in the hospital with shields and cryogenic helium for cooling." In addition, annual maintenance costs for a standard MRI machine are significant.

Until recently, most companies accepted these limitations and focused on improving MRI capabilities by boosting the energy signal with more powerful magnets. While this strategy has resulted in faster, clearer imaging, the machines have become bigger and heavier and significantly more expensive. However, a group of innovative engineers recently tried something different. In a complete paradigm shift, MRI designers at Synaptive Medical – a Toronto-based medical technology company – focused on improving image processing rather than increasing signal strength. The result is the first FDA-approved, high resolution, compact MRI machine.

"It's amazing," says Eskandari. "This next generation of MRI machines are considerably smaller and easier to install. You can bring one up on the freight elevator and put it anywhere in your hospital." 

Through a unique partnership, Synaptive engineers are collaborating with the MUSC Department of Neurosurgery to refine software and hardware for their cutting-edge technologies. The MUSC/Synaptive partnership leverages input from multiple perspectives to cross healthcare barriers and improve patient outcomes.

Sunil Patel, M.D., professor of neurosurgery at MUSC, works closely with the Synaptive partnership. "This is a game-changer,” he says. “Without those huge magnets, it only takes about 20 minutes to warm up the MRI machine, and the shield area is only about one foot. I think we can expect these MRIs to let us do things that were challenging in the past.” He points to high quality brain imaging on neonatal children in the NICU or on stroke patients in the ER as examples.

It is hard to imagine all of the ways this next generation MRI will improve patient care. "It will let us image patients that we never could before," says Eskandari. The most common injury in MRI are burns due to the high energy field. In this regard, the new machines are expected to be much safer. “They have such a low energy field that we can get imaging on more patients now. Plus, this system lets us scan kids with MRI like we never have before. We can increase the number of children who get MRIs and reduce the number who get radiation exposure with a CT," says Eskandari.

The new MRI machine is also less expensive to purchase and maintain, putting it within reach of hospitals that could not think of acquiring an MRI machine before. Eventually, as these next-generation MRIs become widely available, there will be a reduced need for radiation-based imaging.

"In a lot of smaller hospitals and older facilities, MRI is not available because of the cost, or they just don't have the special environment to house one,” says Eskandar. “So, their patients get CT scans. But this new MRl is about one third the cost of the old standard ones. So, it allows smaller centers to purchase an MRI and use less CT, which lowers the radiation dose patients and staff are exposed to."

By all accounts, the Synaptive/MUSC partnership is a win-win collaboration with a bright future. For its part, Synaptive Medical benefits from the expertise of MUSC physicians and staff. For MUSC, it's an opportunity to work directly with engineers who are developing the latest advances in healthcare.

"It’s a scientist-centered company,” says Eskandari. "It's not built around marketing. They're thinking about innovating first, not sales first. That’s unusual, and it’s why we're such a good fit."

With several other innovative technologies in the pipeline, the MUSC Department of Neurosurgery will continue helping to test and validate more Synaptive products.

"Neurosurgery is always driving technology, and this partnership will keep us ahead of the curve well into the future," says Patel. "It's our goal to participate in developing new technologies and help move the whole field forward."