New medical scanners help read the fine print

Prishita Eloise Maheshwari-Aplin 10 November 2016

The Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre at The University of Cambridge underwent a makeover last month, making it the only institution to house all of three particularly groundbreaking medical scanners.

This medical centre – funded by the Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK – has now been outfitted with a handful of the world’s most powerful magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scanners. Researchers will now be able to see details in the brain as tiny as grains of sand and monitor real-time metabolic changes in cancers and tissues, providing the foundation for pivotal advancements in cancer research.

Professor Ed Bullmore, Head of the Neuroscience Department at Cambridge University describes these new machines as remarkable. “We will be able to address clinical issues such as the detailed progression of Parkinson’s disease. At the same time, we will be able to address basic issues about the mind. How does the brain develop? How does the adult brain perform its functions?” he added.

The Siemens 7T Terra MRI scanner, for example, has a resolution of around 0.5mm, compared to most current devices, which can only see structures that are 2-3mm in size. Dr James Rowe highlighted the consequences of this incredible technological progress. “Often, the early stages of diseases of the brain – such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – occur in very small structures. The early seeds of dementia for example, which are often sown in middle age, have been hidden to earlier types of MRI – until now.”

All patients suffering from a particular cancer do not respond equally to general treatments due to genetic differences in the mutations that cause their tumours. It takes time for each treatment to be tested on the patient, during which the tumour may be allowed to grow and spread. The new hyperpolariser at the Wolfson Centre, coupled with DNA sequencing of the tumour and MRI, will hopefully allow researchers to tell if the drug is working within hours. “If it’s working, you continue, if not, you change the treatment”, said Professor Kevin Brindle.

Wolfson Centre’s new medical scanners provide exciting and significant potential for faster diagnosis of dementia and a new age of cancer therapy, with more reliable individually-targeted treatments.