First prototype of MRI-scanner for developing countries

3 July 2019

Andrew Webb, MRI physicist and Simon Stevin Meester 2017 took the challenge to build a simple and cheap MRI scanner for developing countries. Within one year his team has developed a prototype that is able to make actual images.

The magnet used in the scanner

Building such a scanner is harder than building a normal MRI-scanner. This has to do with severe restrictions it has on costs and operating conditions, the professor of radiology (LUMC) says about the project which is funded by NWO Domain Applied and Engineering Sciences.

New MRI techniques

Webb and his team work on the development of new MRI techniques, which allow doctors to make better diagnoses and lead to an earlier detection of diseases. ‘The key is that we want to improve MRI in such a way that diseases can be found earlier’, Webb says. ‘In addition, we want to enable doctors to better monitor a treatment. This gives them the opportunity to make adjustments during the treatment.’

Parallel to this project they work on the simple MRI-scanner: ‘There are of course many terrible diseases in the Western world. Much of our research in MRI focuses on these types of diseases in local patients: for example eye tumours, neurodegenerative and small vessel diseases, and neuromuscular conditions. The equipment to recognize that disease is very expensive. On the other hand: there are still many diseases in developing countries such as sub-Saharan Africa that could potentially be treated and prevented very cheaply if the cost of an MRI were lower.’ Webb and his team started the development of an MRI magnet which is focused on only one thing, for instance hydrocephalus in children. The magnet does not need to deliver images of exceptional quality to be effective. The idea was to reduce the size, load it on a pick-up and drive it through Africa, Webb tells.

Huge challenge

An idea that is now close to its fulfilling: ‘It is a huge challenge, and that is why it hadn't been done by anyone else. We have managed to build our first prototype of our own scanner that in the past few weeks has produced its first three-dimensional images. We have managed to do this in a relatively low-cost way: this MRI scanner costs thousands, instead of millions of euros.’

I’s a big challenge is because the researchers have to use a small, weak magnet. The result is that the images have much lower signal intensity. Webb and his team are working with mathematicians from Delft University of Technology on the question on how to improve the reconstructed images. They also work open source, so that groups from all over the world are able to contribute.

Contacts in Uganda

Webb plans to send the first prototype to Uganda before the end of the year. ‘There are still questions about how quickly they will be able to adopt this technology. For example, there are import regulations that can make it more difficult. Apart from that safety certificates are needed.’ They collaborate with the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus (LDE) Centre for Frugal Innovation and the Delft Global Initiative to build long term contacts with people in Uganda, including in the health ministry. ‘In this way, they know what we are working on’, Webb says.

The scanner is focused on paediatrics, because lack of healthcare in the country is causing a high childhood mortality rate. An advantage about working on the two different projects is that the smaller scanner also contributes to the bigger scanner, Webb says: ‘The algorithm that we develop to improve image quality is applicable to both systems.’

PROF.DR. Andrew Webb is a leading scientific researcher in the field of MRI, with a strong interest in utilisation possibilities. He works together with large parties such as Philips Healthcare, as well as smaller companies such as AR Benelux and Machnet. He is also co-founder of Magnetic Resonance Microsensors in the US, a global supplier of integrated microscopic nuclear magnetic resonance equipment. In 2016, he won an Open Mind grant for his research into simple MRI equipment for developing countries. In 2017 Webb was named Simon Stevin Meester by Technology Foundation STW (now NWO Domain Applied and Engineering Sciences). Webb is affiliated with the Leiden University Medical Center and director of the C.J. Gorter Center for High Field MRI.

Photo: Ivo van der Bent

Source: NWO