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Mayo sees big potential for small MRI machine

Mayo Clinic Rochester doctors John Huston, left, and Matt Bernstein talk about Compact 3T MRI Scanner research on Friday in the Radiology Department in the Charlton North Building on the Mayo Clinic Rochester Campus.

After nearly nine years of planning, Mayo Clinic researchers are just weeks away from collecting data on a $5.7 million compact 3T MRI scanner on its Rochester campus.

Lead researchers John Huston III, a neuroradiologist, and Matt Bernstein, a medical physicist, are optimistic that their targeted work on the brain will improve patient diagnoses and outcomes, particularly involving strokes, Alzheimer's, tumors and high-impact injuries such as concussions.

There's also emerging evidence that the new machine will provide clearer imaging to pave the way for better results with Mayo's proton beam centers in Rochester and Phoenix. The proton beam centers cost a combined $380 million.

The one-of-a-kind MRI was installed Feb. 20 at the Charlton North Building and is in the final stages of being calibrated. It was fully funded by a National Institutes of Health grant and is about a third the size of a typical MRI machine.

A typical MRI machine tends to have distortion along the edges, Dr, Huston said, but the compact model is expected to allow "brain imaging that will be done here and done better." He said that could open the door for especially important work involving traumatic brain injuries, where subtle changes can be more easily tracked.


"We're very excited by its capability and its compact design," Bernstein said.

Due to its design, the new MRI will use just 12 liters of helium to operate rather than the 2,000 liters required by a typical MRI scanner, Huston said. Helium is a non-renewable resource.

While the duo dreams of a day their compact design will be commercially available — which could be especially interesting for the U.S. military at smaller forward bases — they're taking the long view of things. They soon will apply for another 5-year NIH grant with the expectation their research could take years to be proved beneficial.

While they await volunteers to test the new machine and data to prove their theories, the Mayo researcher are confident the machine will allow them to determine if a brain tumor is soft or hard before commencing surgery. Tumors look identical under a typical MRI machine, so that knowledge could change the approach for doctors and surgeons before making a single incision.

"It changes the risk," Huston said. "A soft tumor that's not adherent to the brain can be much more easily removed than a hard tumor."

While the research is just getting cranked up after years of planning and theorizing, those involved with Mayo's proton beam therapy program are expressing optimism it will positively affect their work.

Paul Weavers, a researcher in Bernstein's lab, recently submitted a manuscript that suggests the compact MRI machine will "significantly improve" the image distortion typically found in a normal MRI scanner, which will allow Mayo to more accurately target cancers with pencil-beam radiation therapy.

Erik Tryggestad, who is part of Mayo's radiation oncology program, says he's "eager to be able to start using this distortion-correction framework clinically."


"We are interested in this technology because it will make our magnetic resonance-based target definition process … better on the whole," Tryggestad said.

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