Environment & Engineering

Using your head

Published Jul 26, 2018

Suspected head injuries or strokes could now be diagnosed within minutes of arriving at an emergency department (ED) as a result of an international collaboration between researchers from New Zealand, the United States and Brazil. 

At the heart of the new technology is Victoria University of Wellington’s Robinson Research Institute. Ben Parkinson, a senior engineer at Robinson, is utilising the high temperature superconductor (HTS) expertise they are world-renowned for, to design a game-changing MRI magnet for brain imaging. 

“The collaboration is testing one of the main assumptions of MRI, namely the requirement for an extremely uniform magnetic field,” says Ben, pictured above left. “Using HTS and new MRI techniques developed by our collaborators at the University of Minnesota, we have been able to design a reduced uniformity MRI magnet that is radically smaller and less energy intensive than existing solutions,” says Ben. “Our magnet solution weighs a fraction of the traditional version—which can be upwards of four tonnes—yet we expect to get clinical-quality images from the system.” 

Ben says the reduction in magnet size has meant they can package the system into a portable, helmet-like form which only encloses the head.

Current MRI solutions are large, energy-intensive, complex devices which enclose the whole body, and require dedicated rooms to operate effectively. EDs have to transport patients with acute neurological problems to the radiology department who then need to prep them for an MRI—all of which takes precious time. With every minute’s delay in the treatment of a stroke resulting in an additional one month of impaired brain function,1 the benefits of a portable MRI system that could be used immediately within an ED to diagnose brain injuries, become obvious.

Ben says that the inclusion of a window in the ‘helmet’ will also ensure a better patient experience—especially for those who feel claustrophobic. 

“When people are anxious it’s difficult for them to remain still enough for the clinician to take accurate images of the brain,” he says. “The helmet will not only keep patients securely in place, it will also become the first MRI solution in the world that enables patients to see what’s going on around them and therefore reduce feelings of claustrophobia.

”The potential benefits of, and uses for, the new technology are considered so important that the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—the primary agency of the United States government responsible for biomedical and health-related research—has invested more than USD$10 million into the five-year project. Each of the consortium members (University of Minnesota, Columbia University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Yale University, Universidade de São Paulo and the Robinson Research Institute) is responsible for designing and building their own relevant technical components, which will ultimately be brought together by lead commercialisation partner, the University of Minnesota, as a ‘package’ that can be sold or licensed to a medical device manufacturer and distributor, with the benefits attributed to each member of the consortium. 

However, while a portion of the NIH grant funded the design and build of the HTS magnet in New Zealand, Ben says they required additional investment to attractively package the magnet into an investor-ready product that is clinically fit for purpose. Viclink commercialisation manager, Ashwath Sundaresan, subsequently applied to KiwiNet on Robinson’s behalf, and secured over NZD$220,000 (which Viclink matched, dollar for dollar) to fund the package design currently being carried out in collaboration with Victoria University’s School of Design 

“This new technology is so different to the traditional MRI—where patients lie down during the process­—that it’s crucial our product design meets the needs of the MRI technicians who will be using it,” says Ashwath, pictured above right. “As part of the prototype design process, we’ve been working closely with MRI clinicians and technicians to understand their processes and workflows.” 

He says the feedback so far has been extremely positive. “They’re excited by what the technology can do, and the new treatment possibilities it opens up. People who have medical or electronic devices implanted in their bodies—and therefore can’t currently have an MRI—would be able to do so. And children with suspected concussion, whom clinicians worry will be psychologically affected by a claustrophobic full-body MRI, could also be easily diagnosed. 

Ashwath says that easier, lower-cost MRIs will also open up more opportunities for the neurological research that often takes a back-seat to clinical demand for the more expensive, traditional machines 

With the medical imaging market worth several billion dollars a year globally, Ashwath is collaborating with the consortia’s Technology Transfer Offices to determine the overall Intellectual Property management and commercial governance arrangements. “It’s complex, but the potential for New Zealand business if the prototype succeeds, and the global impact this collaboration could have, make it absolutely worth the effort,” he concludes. 

1 American Heart Association/ American Stroke Association - Management of Acute Ischemic Stroke Guidelines