A quarter of a century ago Aberdeen scientists and clinicians became the first in the world to scan the body of a patient using Magnetic Resonance Imaging.
Now that pioneering approach to diagnostic technology is once again to the fore after the University of Aberdeen was awarded £2.5 million to create a brand new scanner with the potential to revolutionise MRI.
Professor David Lurie and a team of University and Industrial collaborators comprising physicists, engineers, chemists, biologists and medical scientists have been awarded the money from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
They will use the funds to build a scanner that will represent a step-change in the way this type of imaging is carried out.
The new scanner will make visible features not currently seen in conventional MRI. This improved sensitivity and specificity should lead to a better understanding of key diseases, result in more rapid and accurate diagnosis, and eventually pave the way for new treatments.
Professor Lurie, Chair in Biomedical Physics, University of Aberdeen, said: "We are tremendously excited about the potential for this scanner which uses new technology called Fast Field-Cycling MRI.
"We believe it has the potential to gain new insight into processes that give rise to disease, involving the complex interactions of atoms, molecules and cells in the body. Fast Field-Cycling MRI promises to be even more sensitive than conventional MRI at picking up these disease processes.
"This technology breaks the first rule of conventional MRI which is that the magnetic field is held constant while the image is being obtained.
"What we will do with our new scanner is to switch the magnetic field rapidly while the image is being obtained. In this way, we will be able to record information about how molecules behave at a whole range of magnetic fields.
"It is a bit like having at our disposal a hundred or more MRI scanners, each one operating at a different magnetic field – but all in the one scanner. The big advantage is that the new scanner will produce images of the body that will tell clinicians important information about disease processes at a much earlier stage.
"One area of research that will benefit in particular is the role of proteins in diseases. The malformation and malfunctioning of proteins is at the core of many diseases and disorders such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and Multiple Sclerosis. Aberdeen University's Institute of Medical Sciences has world-leading research teams in all of these areas, and the lead scientists are closely involved with the new MRI research.
"A clearer vision of the protein changes that occur in such disorders could lead not only to a better understanding of the disease process itself, but to more rapid and accurate diagnosis and eventually new treatments."
But the new scanner could have a much wider remit than a clinical one.
Professor Lurie said: "We believe there are applications for this technology in a number of areas including the food industry, for example to measure protein changes during food processing.
"Sports and exercise science is another key area that could benefit, where non-invasive muscle mass measurements are needed – information which can be of vital use to athletes undergoing training or recovery from injury. Scientists from the University's Institute of Applied Health Sciences will be working with us on these applications of our new techniques.
"Another area of basic biomedical research that will benefit is the study of thrombosis – the formation of blood clots – and we anticipate that our new scanners will be able to add significantly to the fundamental research going on at Aberdeen in this area."
The University of Aberdeen team will also work with scientists at the company Invento, based at the University of Turin, who have expertise in developing MRI contrast agents used during imaging. Other industrial collaborators include Tesla Engineering in Sussex who design and build the kind of magnets needed for Fast Field-Cycling MRI, and Oxford Instruments who produce specialised control instrumentation for scanners.
A prototype of the imaging device has already been built. A Fast Field-Cycling MRI scanner was created for an earlier research project to develop a scanner to image the distribution of free radical molecules in the body. The idea for this new scanner was a by-product of this earlier work.
Next month the team will begin the four-year process of building the new scanner which Professor Lurie says will complement existing MRI, as opposed to supersede it.
He added: "Aberdeen scientists and clinicians were the first in the world to scan the body of a patient using MRI. Since then enormous advances have been made with MRI which is now used routinely throughout the world.
"It is tremendous that Aberdeen scientists would appear once again to be leading the way with the development of what we believe to be the first clinical scanner of its type in the world."