Comprehensive coverage

A home MRI scanner may revolutionize medicine

In ten years, it may be possible to find ambulances - or hospitals on wheels - that can reach multi-casualty incidents and provide the doctor in the field with a clear 3D image of each injured person. Doctors will no longer have to wonder in fear whether the injured person is suffering from internal injuries that are not visible to the eye and, of course, early detection of cancer

How a conventional MRI (left) and the home device (right) work
How a conventional MRI (left) and the home device (right) work

When Joseph Bailey started losing weight, he thought it was a welcome development. Who doesn't want to lose weight effortlessly? But he also began to suffer from back pain and difficulty breathing, and his wife made it clear to him that something - something - was simply wrong. He went to the doctor, and another doctor and another. Finally, after many months, the culprit was found: a huge cancerous tumor, which wrapped around the kidney and put pressure on the stomach, thus causing a loss of appetite. It was clear that urgent surgery was required here.

Before we continue with Joseph's story, it should be made clear that it is similar to that of many cancer patients. Cancerous tumors do not cause pain or discomfort in their initial stages of development. They usually become noticeable only when they are large enough to press on nerves or internal organs. Unfortunately, this is also the stage when they are more difficult to treat effectively. And what's worse, the more time you give them - the greater the chance that they will release cancer cells into the bloodstream, and thus metastases will develop in other organs of the body. 

How is it possible to find cancerous tumors like Joseph's in time? 

In one word - MRI.

The wonderful machine

When it became clear to Joseph the seriousness of the situation, he underwent a full scan with an MRI machine. He removed all his personal belongings, lay down on a bed and gave the doctors a look at all his internal organs. 

Medical MRI scans began to be prepared fifty years ago, as one of the most successful ways to understand what exactly is happening inside the body. The machine relies on a fascinating fact about the hydrogen atoms in the body: these atoms contain tiny particles called protons, and each such proton is endowed with a property called "spin". "Turn", in Hebrew. The protons are constantly spinning, and each of them is spinning on a different axis. The MRI machine produces a strong magnetic field that forces the protons to synchronize so that they all spin in the same direction. It then emits radio waves that affect the spin axes of the protons. The protons do change their trajectory, but a short time later they claim their insult and return to their natural state, releasing energy that is picked up and recorded by the MRI machine.

The process I have just described is repeated thousands of times during a typical MRI scan, and the energy waves released by the protons are carefully collected and analyzed. Protons in bone tissue behave differently than those in muscle tissue, and these react differently than the protons found in nerves or kidneys. In this way, the machine can draw a 3D image of all the tissues in the body in high resolution.

The results that came from Joseph's MRI scan showed that the tumor was even more complicated than the doctors expected. The tumor spread to both kidneys, from which it continued to expand to Joseph's other internal organs. His only chance of survival was through a massive operation during which both kidneys would be removed, along with an attempt to save his other internal organs.

If only it was possible to detect the development of the tumor a few months or years before!

The sad truth is that the same MRI that detected the spread of the tumor at the last moment, could have discovered the tumor at much earlier stages. But Joseph did not get to undergo such a preliminary MRI, for a very prosaic reason: it is expensive. very

The MRI economy

MRI machines are not a cheap business. They are based on powerful magnets, which only work under conditions of cooling and isolation from the environment. A single scan of a few minutes can back up a power supply similar to that required by an average home for an entire day. In addition to the high energy consumption, we must also add the need for a special room that is protected against electromagnetic interference from the outside. And of course there is a need for talented and skilled technicians to operate the device and maintain it. 

All these needs together mean that the cost of the MRI machine is very high. The most advanced machines on the market are easily accessible For prices of half a million dollars or more . To these should be added, as mentioned, the cost of adapting the rooms and the ongoing care and maintenance. It is no wonder that in developing countries it is very difficult to find MRI scanners. Even in developed countries like Israel and the United States, only the big hospitals can afford to have such machines. Since there are so few machines, there is always a long queue of months to use each machine. And since the hospitals have to reimburse the cost of purchasing and treating them, the price of each scan reaches thousands of shekels (before coverage by the HMO).

All of this explains why ordinary people - that is, those who are not millionaires and are able to place a private MRI machine in their California mansion - do not undergo an MRI examination every year. And it's a shame, because if such annual scans were possible, they would jump forward all the preliminary diagnosis capabilities. We could detect cancerous tumors in the early stages of development. We would be able to notice the accumulation of plaque in the arteries that carry blood to the heart, and thus understand that the subject is at increased risk of heart disease. We would warn in advance of the danger of a stroke, or of the accumulation of plaques in the brain that indicate Alzheimer's disease, or of a decrease in bone density that suggests osteoporosis. 

How significant is such an early detection of cancer? Only one example is given. In the last twenty years the mortality rate of breast cancer has decreased Forty percent - when one of the most important reasons for this is the early detection. A similar drop in the mortality rate was also found for lung and prostate cancer, for similar reasons. The discovery of each of these types of cancer usually requires conducting a unique and dedicated test. But what if we could discover them all - along with dozens of other diseases - in one short and comprehensive test, every year? What if every patient could undergo an annual MRI, which would scan their body from the inside and automatically point out any problems that are just beginning to develop?

Such testing was, quite simply, magic. The kind of game-changing breakthroughs doctors can only dream of. Yes, the technology exists, but it is so expensive and limited that only the very wealthy can afford such an annual MRI. 

But this situation may change thanks to a promising new study that was published in one of the most respected magazines in science - and caused doctors and engineers all over the world to open their eyes and straighten up in their chairs. Research that suggests that already in the coming years we will be able to bring MRI machines everywhere, and even the poorest in society will be able to benefit from such routine examinations.

And of course all this happened (also) thanks to artificial intelligence.

The new model

In a new study which was published last week in Science magazine, a team of researchers from Hong Kong detailed a new prototype MRI machine that should be cheaper and more efficient than existing ones. The researchers used much weaker - and cheaper - magnets than usual, combined with a thousand-fold improvement in the machine's energy consumption. To deal with electromagnetic noise coming from outside the machine and from its internal components, the researchers used ten small sensors placed in strategic areas around the scanner to detect radio signals that could interfere with the scan.

And also artificial intelligence. All the information that comes from the scans is transferred to an artificial intelligence that has been well trained to produce clear images even in situations of strong noise from the environment. 

The meaning of all these improvements is that the new machine can reach a weight of only 600 kilograms - which makes it even possible to place it inside an ambulance, or move it between rooms in a hospital or clinic. The new scanner does not need its own special room or extraordinary shielding from radiation. Its energy consumption is so low that you can connect it to a normal electrical outlet at home. And the hardware cost only reaches 22 thousand dollars, which makes this MRI machine cheap Ninety percent and more from the price of the sophisticated machines currently on the market.

But does this new invention really work?

Probably so. 

The Hong Kong researchers used the new machine to scan the brains, spine, abdominal cavity, heart, lungs and extremities of thirty healthy volunteers. Each such scan required less than eight minutes, and produced results that rival those of traditional MRI scanners. 

Does this mean that the new machine can successfully compete with the existing machines? probably not. Nevertheless, the most advanced MRI machines reach resolutions and qualities that the new prototype still does not come close to. But to do this, they also consume a thousand times more energy - literally - and sometimes require an entire wing dedicated just for them in the hospital. For comparison, the new machine could be placed in any neighborhood clinic, and perhaps even in ambulances, and run at zero energy cost. 

In other words, there is room for both the old and the new - but it is clear that if the new works as expected, then in a short time we will see it everywhere. 

What might such a world look like?

Everything is known in advance

Before we jump into the future, it is important for me to clarify that this is still only one study around a product prototype. It's always possible that the researchers skewed the results, that the prototype consisted of toilet paper rolls and copper wire, and that the subjects were actually Chihuahuas in disguise. It is possible, even if very unlikely.

But what if this research is as serious as it seems to many? How can our lives look like in just a decade thanks to him?

Assuming that the State of Israel will still exist and prosper in ten years, every Israeli citizen will be able to enjoy a level of medical diagnosis that can only be dreamed of today. Every person will be able to go to their neighborhood clinic, lie on the bed once or twice a year, and receive a comprehensive scan in ten minutes of all the organs of their body. The scan will be automatically checked by advanced artificial intelligence, and it will detect every initial sign of disease: cancer, heart and brain diseases, osteoporosis, neurodegenerative diseases and much more. 

Why is it so important to recognize the first signs of these diseases? Joseph's case demonstrates just one reason. Cancerous tumors should be discovered when they are still small, then it is easy to treat them quickly and efficiently. But not only them. Also arteriosclerosis, strokes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases and many others - all of these will respond well to early treatments that will prevent the condition from worsening.

And why stop here? In ten years, it may be possible to find ambulances - or hospitals on wheels - that can reach multi-casualty incidents and provide the doctor in the field with a clear 3D image of each injured person. Doctors will no longer have to wonder in fear whether the injured person is suffering from internal injuries that are not visible to the eye. They will be able to know what his situation is, inside and out, already in the field. This option can revolutionize emergency medicine as well. A wonderful revolution. A revolution of the kind that Joseph Bailey could only wish for.

But he may still win her over.

No one expected him to survive

Joseph went into surgery that no one was sure how he would get out of. The surgeons' eyes darkened when they opened the abdominal cavity and revealed a tumor so enormous that it could have filled an entire bucket. They had to break it down into smaller pieces they could handle. Each such part was connected to a different internal organ: the pancreas, intestines, spleen and kidneys. For hours, three professors struggled to deal with the tumor. They cut and amputated him alternately, while putting pressure on the blood vessels to stop the bleeding from the internal organs. The situation got so bad that they had to perform CPR on Joseph. twice

"At one point I found myself applying pressure to several bleeding points at the same time, while the other two were working. He almost died in the operating room..." said one of them. The second added that Joseph was the sickest person he had ever cared for.

"No one thought he would make it through the night alive."

But Joseph survived. He remained alive until this morning, and spent four whole months recovering in the hospital, during which he lost more than fifty kilograms. He also lost both of his kidneys, his spleen, his gallbladder, half of his pancreas and at least one of his adrenal glands. His life would not be easy, but he survived. 

Joseph's story is already ancient: it happened ten years ago. In ten years, one can hope that such stories will become a thing of the past. Thanks to inventions like the ground-breaking MRI machine, Joseph's story will become a curiosity - monsters-under-the-beds of doctors and patients - and not a widespread phenomenon of patients who do not know they are dying until the last moment.

Science and technology will allow all of this to happen. And we - we just have to keep surviving until then.

More of the topic in Hayadan:

Science website logo