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Researchers hope to deploy the device to the International Space Station to study the effects of space travel on humans

While mankind has been sending men and women into space for the past five decades, the effects of spaceflight on the human body are still only partially understood.  One key obstacle is that many forms of high-resolution medical scanning equipment is too bulky and heavy to transport into space for use in orbiting space stations.

I. Bringing an MRI up to the ISS?

A key example is the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines.  On Earth they provide the capability to image tissues at a fidelity not possible with other types of scans.  A typical MRI machine costs around $1M USD and weighs about 11 tons due to its bulky liquid-helium cooled superconducting magnets.  Also a traditional MRI could endanger space state residents -- its gradient coils consume massive amounts of power in short bursts and the magnets can create stray magnetic fields that could disrupt life support and other mission-critical systems.

The chairman of the Canadian University of Saskatchewan's Biomedical engineering department hopes to change that, though.  Chairman Gordon Sarty heads a team that has developed a miniature version of the scanner that weighs less than a ton and costs as little as $200,000.

Micro MRI
A full-size mockup of Professor Sarty's reimagined MRI
[Image Source: Gordon Sarty / University of Saskatchewan]

An initial deployment to the International Space Station (ISS) may involve a 1/20th of a ton device, only capable of scanning limbs, to study bone mass and vasculature.  However, Professor Sarty would like to build a full size scanner for the station eventually.  He comments in an NBC News interview, "I would like to build a facility-class, whole-body-sized MRI.  Such a project would require an agreement between the ISS space agencies."

II. Initial Findings Look Promising

At the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Sept. 13 AIAA Space 2012 conference Professor Sarty and his team presented their findings.

Their instrument employs a couple of key advances.  First, it utilizes a permanent Halbach magnet -- the primary source of the large weight reduction.  Halbach magnets are a construct of permanent magnets arranged in an array such that they increase each other’s magnet fields within one region and nullify it within another.  In a cylindrical configuration -- a configuration being explored for both motor applications and imaging equipment like Professor Sarty's micro-MRI -- in the ideal case there is an intense field within the cylinder and virtually no field outside of it.

Halbach magnet
A Halbach magnet [Image Source: PERDaix]

Thus the Halbach magnet cylinder also solves a couple of the other issues as it draws no power and produces minimal magnetization outside the cylinder.  To further reduce power, the coil system is modified to only need the radiofrequency coil -- a design called the Transmit Array Spatial Encoding (TRASE).

While the result may be tailor-fit for space applications, Professor Sarty says its qualities like reduced weight and low power consumption could make it well suited for terrestrial applications, as well, such as battlefield deployments (the device could be loaded aboard a truck and run off of batteries).

ISS wide
The final target deployment is the ISS. [Image Source: NASA]

While conference attendees reportedly urged Professor Sarty to set his eyes on these earthbound applications first, he has his sights firmly set on space and is lobbying the Canadian Space Agency to deploy a prototype to the ISS.  He comments, "Eventually someone will break a bone in space.  We have no idea if that bone will heal."

Source: NBC News

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terrestrial applications
By MadMan007 on 9/23/2012 2:32:05 AM , Rating: 5
...such as battlefield deployments.

That's great and all, but it's really the best other idea they could come up with for terrestrial applications? Does this lack a lot of utility of current MRI machines? If not, I could think of some applications like, place of units that cost 10x as much.

RE: terrestrial applications
By rpsgc on 9/23/2012 6:02:52 AM , Rating: 2
But think of the poor $1M MRI machine manufacturers who would be out of business!

RE: terrestrial applications
By przemo_li on 9/23/2012 6:18:57 AM , Rating: 2
They could license technology and produce them cheaper than fresh start ups. Since they have know how in manipulatory, and execution. And ready to use sale channels.

RE: terrestrial applications
By Warwulf on 9/23/2012 12:04:28 PM , Rating: 2
Or, more likely, an existing MRI machine manufacturer (like GE, Toshiba, etc) could purchase the patent and not produce the cheaper machine so the only option is their $1M machine.

RE: terrestrial applications
By ViroMan on 9/23/2012 1:45:41 PM , Rating: 2
The interesting thing about patents is that it doesn't stop governments from making things that are protected by them.

RE: terrestrial applications
By XZerg on 9/23/2012 11:21:30 PM , Rating: 2
what i have seen is that technologies like these get bought out by the companies that are producing the costlier version, only to sell the "cheaper" version at a much inflated price, closer to the costlier version. they are just "recouping" their loss of R&D on the costlier version and the $$$ paid to buy this one out.

RE: terrestrial applications
By Mint on 9/24/2012 5:05:22 AM , Rating: 3
I don't think MRI machines are produced by so few manufacturers that you get no competition. Clinics want to reduce costs (especially when starting up), so as long as the machine produces reasonable data quality, a lower priced machine will be in demand.

Looks like no manufacturer has a dominant market share:
That means the patent holder will make more money getting $100k/machine from each manufacturer (which they will offer for such a huge cost reduction) than $300k/machine from one exclusive licensee, which would be the only way that the cheaper machine winds up not getting produced.

Ask yourself why flat panel TVs came down in price so fast. Cost savings WILL largely get passed down to consumers, even with all the shady crap going on in the medical industry.

RE: terrestrial applications
By mugiebahar on 9/23/2012 12:53:01 PM , Rating: 1
Agreed, how this could nt be the obvious choice is stupid. It's funny how we make something cheaper and the first place we want to use it in space, that's just screwed up. How about struggling families who can't afford MRIs or caner patients who have but mere months/ days to live? We deserve to die as a people. If we can't take care of the poor/unfortunate/sick why do we think its ok to waste money going to space or better put living. People say survival of the fittiest that's natures way, but we are thinking, intelligent beings why do we use those attributes and care for people.

RE: terrestrial applications
By Master Kenobi on 9/23/2012 4:00:05 PM , Rating: 4
While I agree with your premise, even I admit that when it comes to Space, you get people on the better end of the gene pool. Most people interested in space are pioneers, and are looking ahead to the future. If this guy tried to market this to a terrestrial application he would get nowhere, but by choosing space, he gets recognition for being the first at something, as well as no companies motivated to stop him, and governments that want it. Win, win, and more win.

You want to know why medical advancements to make things CHEAPER, or EFFECIENT don't happen very often? Because it doesn't earn the companies more money. Ever wonder why Razors aren't made to literally last forever, or that there isn't a quick and easy way to permanently kill hair folicles? Because a multi-billion dollar industry would evaporate over night. There is good money to be made in prolonging a problem with a half-assed, inefficient solution.

Off Topic: We can invest tons of money into regrowing hair or transplanting it, but god forbid we find a way to permanently get rid of it, that might actually make financial sense for consumers, but wreck many corporations' cash cow that they have been milking since the stone age.

RE: terrestrial applications
By nafhan on 9/24/2012 10:29:24 AM , Rating: 3
I'm missing the part where using it in space means we can't use it on Earth. I feel like the opposite would actually be true. Let me explain:
While the per unit cost of these things promises to be much lower than current machines, there's obviously significant R&D going into turning this into a functioning product. If a national space program pays for that R&D, "poor/unfortunate/sick" people will be able to start using the new machines sooner NOT later.

RE: terrestrial applications
By bobsmith1492 on 9/23/2012 5:25:00 PM , Rating: 1
Yes, it lacks the utility. The article itself states the machine is only large enough for an arm or so, not a head or body. Plus, see the other poster below who states the image quality is proportional to magnetic field strength.

RE: terrestrial applications
By BifurcatedBoat on 9/23/2012 5:54:30 PM , Rating: 2
If the healthcare industry were free-market, and worked like other industries, then it would have already been done. There'd be a machine designed for earth use that doesn't even cost half of what this one does.

RE: terrestrial applications
By Mint on 9/24/2012 6:32:19 AM , Rating: 1
The free market doesn't work for health care. The efficiency of any free market depends on the consumer's ability to evaluate the goods that they are buying. This is rarely considered because for virtually everything else, the customer is always right.

With health care, you need 10+ years of post-secondary education to know whether you're getting the right treatment or not, and even the few with that skill don't usually have a firm grasp of cost effectiveness. Individual outcomes won't tell you anything aside from the most obvious cases of malpractice.

The free market takes advantage of clueless customers, driving US healthcare costs up:

RE: terrestrial applications
By Keeir on 9/24/2012 11:48:54 AM , Rating: 2
The efficiency of any free market depends on the consumer's ability to evaluate the goods that they are buying.

I'd go a bit further. The efficiency depends on the consumer being able to evaluate the value of the goods they are "buying".

Free Market systems can work without people being experts in everything.

But pricing options must be expressed and expressed before purchase.

Most consumers of healthcare (75%+) don't understand what healthcare costs. Many (50%+) doesn't even care what healthcare insurance costs, since they are not directly paying for it.

Nothing singificant has been done to reduce the cost of healthcare. In fact, almost every government, consumer, etc action works in the opposite direction... steadily increasing the end cost of healthcare.

RE: terrestrial applications
By Mint on 9/24/2012 11:43:10 PM , Rating: 2
But pricing options must be expressed and expressed before purchase.
How do you do that for healthcare? Everyone is unique, and similar symptoms from different ailments can have vastly different diagnosis and treatment costs. Any free market attempt to amortize these variances will result in borderline immoral practices (preexisting conditions, age discrimination, maybe genetic screening in the future, etc).

It's impossible to price the cost of healthcare beforehand. It's simply ill suited to the free market, and while socialized medicine can't solve all problems, it can certainly eliminate a lot of them.

The inability of the customer to determine what he needs to buy along with the life and death seriousness of a wrong decision in trying to save costs gives the retailer way, way too much leverage in a free market. One of the links above show how easy it is for a doctor to increase demand for a service by an order of magnitude without any need, yet neither the doctor nor the patient can be blamed.

RE: terrestrial applications
By Keeir on 9/26/2012 3:58:02 PM , Rating: 2
quote>How do you do that for healthcare? Everyone is unique, and similar symptoms from different ailments can have vastly different diagnosis and treatment costs. Any free market attempt to amortize these variances will result in borderline immoral practices (preexisting conditions, age discrimination, maybe genetic screening in the future, etc).


Your talking about Healthcare -INSURANCE- costs. I am talking about Healthcare costs.

How much does a typical blood test cost?
How much does 1 hour of physician time?
How much does a root canal cost?
How much does eye surgery cost?
How much does getting A medicine over B medicine cost?

The cost of Healthcare is -predictable-.

The inability of the customer to determine what he needs to buy along with the life and death seriousness of a wrong decision in trying to save costs gives the retailer way, way too much leverage in a free market.

Hahah comon. Car Maintainence is a matter of life and death. 5,000-10,000 people die or are maimed for life each year due to poor car maintainence. Should we have socialized car maintainence? You arguements are silly.

People serious life choices every day. They gather their best information sources and wiegh thier percieved value versus thier percieved cost.

"Socializing" healthcare is only going to make the situation worse here in the US. Unless we rip everything up from the ground up and provide free education, free buildings, and ration healthcare, the problems you percieve with the "free market" solution will remain. Heck, the main problem you keep saying

One of the links above show how easy it is for a doctor to increase demand for a service by an order of magnitude without any need

happened precisely because the people getting the screening did not have the information or even care to have the information. The majority of the "consumers" didn't have a cost outside thier time.

If instead of a healthcare free pass, healthcare insurance only covered expenses over 10,000 in a given year, that problem wouldn't have happened. 9/10 people would have said "Doctor, do I really need this 1,000 dollar scan?" and 6/10 would get a second opinion.

Instead, in a "socialized" system, the Doctor may or may not be allowed to buy the machine, and may or may not be allowed to give a scan to a patient, regardless of the patient desire.

yet neither the doctor nor the patient can be blamed.

The Doctor is 100% to blame. It's an "easy" crime to commit, because the only entity "hurt" is that evil insurance company. But its still a deception. The Doctor clearly is trying to make more money for his practice, and doing so by passing fradulent costs on the insurance company. Worse, since the Doctor is actually performing the scans, thier is both -waste- and corruption.

RE: terrestrial applications
By DanNeely on 9/23/2012 11:09:08 PM , Rating: 2
You're assuming it's as good as current hospital models as opposed to merely good enough to be useful. My strong suspicion is that the latter is correct; in which case it'd be a non-starter at 99% of US hospitals because it's a downgrade in capabilities; if it's cheap enough it might make some inroads at larger urgent care facilities and very small rural hospitals that can't afford a full size MRI unit.

Beyond that you've just got the developing world; but they're far less able and willing to pay than the DoD, leading to much smaller margins; as a result they're not going to be the first targeted customer.

RE: terrestrial applications
By nafhan on 9/24/2012 10:25:47 AM , Rating: 2
My first thought was having MRI's in doctor's offices and, really, making the procedure just all around less expensive.

For terrestrial applications, I feel like the biggest deal about this is only briefly touched upon: no cooling system. Getting rid of the cryogenically cooled superconducting magnets will make this MUCH easier to use and maintain.

And... actually for bringing MRI's to places like a general practitioner minimizing the external magnetic field is a pretty big deal, too. Currently, MRI machines are in "magnet proof" (yes this is the proper scientific term) rooms. Do a search for videos of people bringing ferromagnetic items (such as a steel folding chair) into an MRI room... you will not be disappointed :)

RE: terrestrial applications
By jdietz on 9/24/2012 3:06:47 PM , Rating: 2
One "con" certainly is that the device is not FDA-approved (as a medical device) and gaining that approval will take some time.

It's cheaper but is it as good?
By havoti97 on 9/23/2012 5:07:50 PM , Rating: 3
The superconducting magnets in traditional MRI machines produce very, very strong magnetic fields. 1.5T is typical but 3T is beginning to show up in the market. Image quality is directly correlated with the magnetic field. There are already machines that use permanent magnets, but they produce fields an order of magnitude lower, like 0.3T. For some applications, that lower field is acceptable but others, you absolutely need the higher field strength. As a patient, which machine would you pick for your diagnostic imaging?

By dgingerich on 9/24/2012 8:12:01 AM , Rating: 2
There are times when the higher resolution is needed, and times when it is not. Obviously, the numbers aren't mentioned in the article, but there is a likelihood this new design could come close to the high end machines produced today and improve from there, but I can't say for certain. Even if it doesn't, a lot of good medicine was practiced with the older units that didn't have very good resolution. That high end resolution isn't always needed.

I can certainly see a couple nice uses in this magnet design, though. I've never heard of it before, but I can imagine an electric generator design that would be incredibly efficient and useful.

By przemo_li on 9/24/2012 9:01:31 AM , Rating: 2
Second. Cause it would mean that I could get done MRI in days not months. Yes I live in country where for MRI you wait 3-6 months. (Unless you went to the hospital in ambulance)

There are also probably tones of cases where image do not need to be super sensitive, so cheaper equipment would be better, while better equipment could be used for harder cases.

RE: It's cheaper but is it as good?
By aliasfox on 9/24/2012 11:26:38 AM , Rating: 2
It's not necessarily an either-or scenario. A large hospital, for example, could purchase one large, high detail MRI and three or four smaller units so that people who need MRIs to arms/legs/hands/feet can get through the line much more quickly. I'd bet that it's more along these lines:

- Insurance will pay for the $300 cheap MRI, with the understanding that 1/5 cases may need to get a $1000 MRI as well.

- Insurance can only pay for $1000 MRIs.

For 5 scans, the insurance company pays out $2500 in one scenario, $5k for the other.

Alternatively, smaller, more rural, or more financially constrained hospitals now have the opportunity to have an MRI machine where before they didn't. Drive/train hours to the nearest big city, or go to the village/town clinic 30 mins away?

By havoti97 on 9/27/2012 12:13:18 AM , Rating: 2
Let me give some very real scenarios. Suppose condition A is harmless and is easily diagnosed with the cheaper MRI machine while condition B, if not addressed in a timely manner, will kill the patient, ie cancer.

A patient overdoes an exercise routine and feels pain in shoulder. The pain persists despite over the counter pain medication. This doctor thinks it's condition A so he orders an MRI scan on the cheaper, inferior quality scanner. At least that's what his insurance will pay for anyway with his diagnosis.

The scan results come back and does look like condition A. However, condition B may also have that appearance on a cheap scanner, but on a higher quality scanner, the 2 different conditions can be easily differentiated. This could easily lead to misdiagnosis of something that could be treated if caught early.

I know this kind of scenario will be a minority, but we as a society must accept a certain threshold of false negatives if we want to control cost. As of now, we want 100% accurate medicine with dirt cheap cost. The two are almost mutually exclusive with the current technology we have. And guess whose a** is on the line if there is a misdiagnosis. Given the litigious society we live in, which test do you think the doctor who's ordering will order? Which test will you, as a patient, want your doctor to order?

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