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International drive to improve medical imaging capabilities

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Medical imaging has huge untapped potential in improving diagnosis.

An international consortium has launched a project to realise the potential of imaging technology for medical diagnosis.

A consortium of scientists, led by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), in collaboration with partners from across Europe, is undertaking an international study to unlock the potential of quantitative MRI.

MRI is an imaging technique which can be used to visualise the interior of the body, without requiring invasive biopsy or ionising radiation.

Quantitative MRI (qMRI) is used to develop maps of human tissue, and diagnose liver disease, muscular dystrophy, heart failure, and ischemic stroke among other diseases.

The project will develop materials, test objects, imaging protocols, analysis tools, and best practice guidance for various qMRI techniques.

Its aim is to provide similar metrological underpinning for qMRI to that currently available in Radiotherapy, to ensure consistency and comparability between sites and scanners.

Routine clinical MRI produces images designed for single use, optimised for evaluation by individual medical experts.

Although this is a very powerful tool, it lacks consistency when comparing images acquired on different scanners or at different times.

Conventional MRI is qualitative, with tissue contrasts which may vary from one scanner to another, so the resulting images are not directly comparable.

This is challenging for patient follow-up or in large-scale clinical trials using MRI.

Quantitative MRI (qMRI) uses the same scanner technology in a different way– every pixel in an image contains a measured value of a relevant physical quantity of the tissue being studied.

This approach can increase consistency and clinical specificity since these measurements are independently verifiable.

The ability to calibrate different scanners reduces data variability, for instance decreasing the sample size required to observe a clear effect in multi-centre trials, and has the potential to reveal new, clinically useful information not present in conventional scans.

However, metrological support is required to evaluate scanner performance using well characterised test objects and measurement protocols.

To realise the potential of qMRI techniques and their benefits in healthcare, there is an urgent need to ensure scanners are calibrated to common standards and to develop guidance for quality assurance procedures for routine clinical use.

The consortium will support the clinical uptake of qMRI methods by providing a metrological foundation that enables independent validation of qMRI measurements.

This new project aims to develop reference materials, a new test object, optimised imaging procedures, and advanced simulation and data analysis approaches for qMRI, with validation techniques in an international multi-site trial.

The team’s results are expected to contribute to future international standards for qMRI and to expedite the clinical deployment of new qMRI techniques.

Matt Hall, principal research scientist, NPL, says: “This is a fantastic opportunity to put qMRI techniques on a sound measurement science footing and enable the power of qMRI to be deployed to benefit patients and help clinical specialists.

“qMRI is a diverse set of approaches which potentially provide extremely rich information about tissue without the need for ionising radiation or invasive biopsy, but there is a pressing need to provide independent reliable calibration procedures and validation of imaging outputs.

“This international collaboration spans experts in materials, test objects, MR imaging, simulation and informatics, and study design.

“We’re going to be developing test objects and procedures to maximise consistency between sites and building a collaboration that can help translate some really promising research into clinical practice and make a significant positive difference for patients.”

Other parties involved in the project include the Institute of Metrology of Bosnia and Herzegovina (IMBiH), Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRIM) and their commercial spin-out VERLAB, Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK) and Careggi University Hospital (AOUC).

UK bodies include the National Measurement Laboratory based at LGC, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust (BHSCT), University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust (UHBW) and University College London (UCL).

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