For patients who need to get an imaging test, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), it can often be expensive, have long wait times and be inaccessible to those in remote locations. What if there was a cheaper, quicker and more convenient solution?
Dr. Shannon Kolind, an associate professor at UBC’s faculty of medicine and researcher at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, recently received one of Canada’s first portable MRI systems and will be investigating possible uses in research and clinical settings.
“The amazing thing about the scanner is you can take it to the patient,” says Dr. Kolind, “For example, one of the immediate applications that has come out of the pandemic is if you need to check whether a COVID patient had a stroke and they couldn’t make it to the MRI, the portable scanner would allow you do that at bedside.”
The scanner—developed by Hyperfine—is the world’s first portable, easy-to-use MRI system. While the scanner is convenient for patients in hospitals, the bigger application will be for rural and remote communities that have limited access to these tools. For Dr. Kolind’s team, the long-term goal is to provide improved patient access to MRI to enable faster diagnosis and better disease management.
“This technology democratizes access to care and really evens the playing field so that more people can get proper treatment,” Dr. Kolind notes. “I think it’s important that our tools are accessible to everyone in the community, so it’s really rewarding to work on something that can really help make a difference in people’s lives.”
With funding from Brain Canada and Michael Smith Health Research BC, Dr. Kolind will be working with PhD student Adam Dvorak and postdoctoral fellow Dr. Hanwen (Kevin) Liu to study how the system can be used in multiple sclerosis (MS). MRI is essential in MS care for diagnosis, detection of new brain lesions, monitoring disease progression, guiding treatment decisions and for use in clinical trials of new drugs. The team hopes the new portable scanner will make imaging tests more accessible to MS patients living in remote communities and for those with mobility issues.
“Because of advances in technology, with better coils and tricks done in machine learning, it is still able to produce excellent images,” Dr. Kolind explains, “While the portable scanner is not meant to be a replacement for regular MRIs, it will be very useful as a complementary screening tool.”
“This technology democratizes access to care and really evens the playing field so that more people can get proper treatment.”
Dr. Shannon Kolind
As part of a research project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Dr. Kolind’s team will be working with a partner site in sub-Saharan Africa or India that also received a portable MRI from Hyperfine. Together, they will explore how the scanner can be used in low- and middle-income countries, with a particular interest in the effect of malnutrition on brain development in paediatric populations.
The scanner uses a very low magnetic field (64mT) compared to traditional research MRI scanners (which typically have 3T magnets) and clinical scanners (which usually have 1.5T magnets). Currently, the portable scanner is for the head only, but uses for other areas of the body are under development and future design modifications will further expand its usability.
“It’s a lot of fun, as the physics are different and we spend so much time at these higher magnetic field strengths, we take it for granted,” says Dr. Kolind, “So having to rethink how to approach things at low field gets you thinking about MRI physics from the basics again, which I really enjoy.”
A version of this story was originally published on the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health website.