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Scientists develop the first portable magnetic resonance device

A team from the Institute of Instrumentation for Molecular Imaging (i3M), a joint centre of the CSIC and the Polytechnic University of Valencia, has developed the first portable magnetic resonance imaging. It is a low-cost device that can be used in situations where this diagnostic technique is usually ruled out for technical or economical reasons.

With this device, the team has obtained the first magnetic resonance images outside clinical settings, such as this photograph in a patient's home. Credits: i3M, CSIC-UPV.Sometimes, the use of diagnostic technique MRI (which stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is not possible, such as in the case of patients with metal implants, pacemakers or tattoos (since the inks contain metallic components). Also, in emergency cases in remote or poorer locations, the possibility of having MRI 'in situ' is non-existent. MRI is one of the most valued medical imaging techniques, but it is very expensive.

Now, a research group at the Institute of Instrumentation for Molecular Imaging (i3M), a joint centre of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV), has developed the first low-cost, portable magnetic resonance imaging technology with high diagnostic quality. It is a scanner for taking images of arms and legs, lightweight and low power consumption (less than a microwave oven).

The device is based on three patents developed by i3M, with the collaboration of the spin-off PhysioMRI Tech SL.  The scientists have obtained the first magnetic resonance images outside clinical settings with diagnostic utility. The results were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The developed device costs around 50,000 euros, far less than conventional devices, which cost around one million euros. It is also much lighter, weighing only 250 kilos compared to the several tonnes of current devices. "It is the first model that can be taken to the patient's home," explains Joseba Alonso, the CSIC researcher leading the project.

Scientists have been able to reduce cost and weight by replacing the superconducting magnet, such as those used in large particle physics experiments, with a magnet based on an array of 5,000 small permanent magnets like those found in refrigerators.

Reducing the magnetic field makes possible to use this device in situations where, until now, MRI was automatically ruled out, such as the case of patients with pacemakers or tattoos

Nevertheless, this replacement “decreases the magnetic field strength, and therefore the maximum resolution of the image," says Alonso. "However, there are many applications where you don't need as much resolution as the one that expensive hospital machines provide, and at the same time it opens up a whole new range of possibilities.

Reducing the magnetic field makes possible to use this device in situations where, until now, MRI was automatically ruled out, such as use in operating theatres or in the case of patients that have pacemakers or tattoos.

In addition, the lower weight of the device allows the system to be mounted on a trolley as a portable scanner, which can be used in patients' homes, homes for the elderly or people with reduced mobility, outpatient clinics and small clinics, intensive care areas, emergency rooms, operating theatres and medical vehicles. It could also be made more widely available in developing countries, field hospitals, sporting events...

First MRI scans outside of the clinic

Researchers have obtained the first MRI images outside clinical facilities: in an office, outdoors (powered by a small generator), and even in the patient's home. "All the images obtained have enough quality to diagnose a multitude of lesions and diseases," says Alonso. The quality of the images has been validated  by radiologists at the Hospital Universitario y Politécnico La Fe de València.

"To compensate for the loss of magnetic field, we use a technology of pulse sequences we developed and patented, which is highly efficient both in terms of spatial coding capacity and image reconstruction. This is how we achieve diagnostic-quality images," describes the CSIC researcher.

For Alonso, "this scanner is a first step to make MRI more accessible. MRI “is the most valued medical imaging technique but it is not easily accessible because its high cost". The next steps to be taken for the device to reach the market consist of carrying out exhaustive studies to demonstrate the clinical value of the machine, as well as passing a series of tests (safety, electromagnetic compatibility, materials, etc.), in order to obtain the approbation of the European Union and the United States health authorities.

Reference article:

Guallart-Naval, T., Algarín, J., Pellicer-Guridi, R. et al. Portable magnetic resonance imaging of patients indoors, outdoors and at home. Sci Rep 12, 13147 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-17472-w