It's all about image
By Tim Stoddard
Visiting the new magnetic resonance imaging scanner at the Medical Campus is a bit like passing through airport security. Before stepping through a thick doorway into the specially shielded scanning room, where the scanner looms like a seven-foot-tall beige doughnut, pockets have to be emptied of coins, pens, and other metal objects. The ghost in the machine -- a multiton magnet -- is powerful enough to turn car keys into lethal projectiles.
Dae-Shik Kim stands next to the whirring scanner like a proud father. “This magnet is already producing the best images I've ever seen in MRI,” he says. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create images of different tissues in the body without surgery, dyes, or radiation. Physicians use MRI to visualize anatomical structures, diagnose diseases and injuries, and to study physiological processes in real time.
A neuroscientist who recently joined the MED faculty as an associate professor in the department of anatomy and neurobiology, Kim is the director of BU's new Center for Biomedical Imaging. While clinicians at Boston Medical Center have been scanning patients with MRI for 12 years, the new center (which has not yet been officially named) will be the University's first dedicated to basic and clinical research. Located on the BioSquare campus in the basement of the Evans Biomedical Research Center at 650 Albany St., the facility is already up and running; Kim says investigators from the Charles River and Medical campuses can submit applications to use the scanner starting February 1.
In the control room adjacent to the scanner, Mark Moss, a MED professor of anatomy and neurobiology and chair of the department, points out other amenities, such as the 42-inch monitor for viewing subjects inside the scanner, the long laboratory next door, and the computer room, where investigators can pore over data. “It's one of the most elegant imaging centers I've ever seen,” Moss says. “Dae-Shik and I visited many facilities across the Northeast as we were planning this one, and BU's center takes advantage of all their attributes.”
The centerpiece is a state-of-the-art Philips Intera 3T scanner. Most hosptial MRI machines use 1.5T magnets, with magnetic field strengths of 1.5 tesla. This machine's magnet is more powerful, producing higher quality images that are pivotal in research. In a few years, Kim and Moss hope to add additional scanners, including a smaller, but more powerful, 9.4T machine that can resolve details on the micrometer level.
Try this out for size
One of the center's most important scanners doesn't have a magnet in it -- it's a full-scale mock-up of the Philips 3T that's hollow inside. The mock-up is essential, Kim says, for researchers planning experiments and for people preparing to go into an MRI machine for the first time. Researchers need to design new experimental devices that fit inside the tunnel of the scanner, and it's easier to tinker with devices away from the magnet.
As MRI machines go, Kim and Moss say, the Philips 3T is unusually welcoming and comfortable. “The competing products are more intimidating than this one,” Kim says. “This is as user-friendly as it gets.” The tunnel in the machine is shorter and more open than most, and its flared opening lets in ambient light. They plan to make the simulator even less intimidating to kids, Kim says, by covering the rim of the tunnel with “stickers of astronauts and SpongeBob SquarePants and stuff like that.”
Not your neighbor's Oldsmobile
One of the best things about the new facility, Kim says, is its location. BU researchers have been using MRI since it emerged in the early 1980s, but until now they've had to jockey for time on scanners at other institutions, such as Massachusetts General Hospital's imaging facility in Charlestown and at McLean Hospital in Belmont. “It's like using your neighbor's car,” Kim says. “Even if they give you the keys, and say you can use it anytime, how realistic is that in practice? The BU researchers have ended up having the less-than-desirable scan times late at night, which is very difficult if you have patients.”
The new facility will be open to any researcher, with priority given to BU and BUMC faculty. A University steering committee with representatives from both campuses will meet monthly to discuss scanning policies and to schedule scan times. “The basic policy now,” Kim says, “is that BU investigators will have priority over non-BU people, and funded researchers will have higher priority over nonfunded people. But we will reserve some scan time for pilot studies. BU researchers can come in and use the scanner for free so that they can get preliminary data for their grant applications.”
The center has a close relationship with Philips, one of the leading manufacturers of MRI equipment. When most hospitals purchase an MRI machine, Kim says, they are limited in what they can do with it. “It's all autopilot,” he says. “You'll click on a brain menu in the control room, and it will tell you what kinds of brain-related scans you can perform. That's sufficient for most clinical use, where you have high turnaround of patients that you have to scan very quickly.”
But Kim and his colleagues at the center will work with Philips to push the scanning technology even further. With Itamar Ronen, a MED assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology, Kim will develop new software to help BU researchers tailor the scanning technology to their particular questions.
Philips, meanwhile, is investing considerable energy and equipment in BU's center. “We are the showcase for Philips in the Northeast,” Moss says, “and our goal is that BU will be a major player in MRI development through our relationship with this company.” Indeed, Kim says Philips is already planning to bring potential clients to BU to see the MRI systems in action.
As the imaging center evolves, Kim and Ronen expect novel imaging techniques to continue to develop and grow. “The beauty of MRI,” says Kim, “is that there seems to be no end in sight for its uses.”
For more information on using the MRI scanner, e-mail Dae-Shik Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org .