Canadian Researchers Working on Novel MRI for ISS

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has awarded a research team at the University of Saskatchewan a $100,000 contract to design and engineer an ankle-sized MRI device for the International Space Station (ISS).

The portable MRI will weigh about 30 kilograms, according to team leader professor Gordon Sarty, a pronounced reduction when compared to hospital machines that can weigh 15 tons. Sarty says the goal is to test an ankle MRI on astronauts aboard the ISS by the early 2020s, and ultimately monitor the bone health of astronauts during prolonged space trips, where weightless conditions lead to the loss of bone mass.

After the ankle-size MRI, Sarty also plans to build a helmet-sized MRI for possible use on a deep-space getaway station orbiting the moon and, far closer to home, in remote areas such as northern Saskatchewan where access to a portable MRI can save the lives of patients with potentially fatal head injuries.

“As a kid watching men walk on the moon, I was pretty sure that I would walk on the moon when I grew up,” says Sarty. “As a grown-up, I worked as an engineer on space projects at SED Systems in Saskatoon. It was a dream job, but I returned to graduate school in part because I wanted my own project. This MRI work is that project. I may not make it to the moon, but my MRI will.”

The CSA earlier awarded the team a grant of $500,000 to actually build an ankle MRI and test it on Earth using a steeply climbing and diving jet to create zero-gravity conditions. The requirements for such an experimental device aren’t as high as designing an MRI for use on the ISS. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) also awarded Sarty a $105,000 Discovery Grant in 2016 to develop new MRI technology.

So far, a post-doctoral fellow, three PhD students, a master’s student and seven undergraduates have been involved in the portable MRI project. Sarty and his team designed a wrist-sized MRI in 2014 that weighed about 50 kilograms. The space agency then asked about an ankle MRI, deeming it better suited for space experiments on bone health. “We couldn’t do an ankle-size because the magnet design we had at that point would be too heavy,” says Sarty. “Since then we’ve been developing a new magnet technology that’s considerably lighter.”

The new technology doesn’t need a perfectly uniform magnetic field: a breakthrough allows for a design that uses cheaper and lighter magnets, according to Sarty.

While the magnet in the original design for a wrist MRI would have cost about $1 million, Sarty and his team since have built a wrist MRI with a non-uniform magnet that used off-the-shelf components, weighing five kilograms at a cost of $5,000.

The team is working with Logi Vidarsson of LT Imaging of Toronto to design and build a larger magnet for the ankle MRI. Three PhDs and a post-doctoral fellow will test the ankle MRI in spring 2019 under zero-gravity conditions aboard a jet that will make steep climbs and dives at altitudes between 10,000- and 20,000-feet. “Eventually I’d like to see our technology move into emergency rooms,” Sarty says. “You already have CAT scans, ultrasound and X-ray that are at that level, but MRIs aren’t used in the ER yet.”

The researcher also envisions eventually developing small MRIs for use in tandem with surgical robots to treat astronauts on long duration space travel—to Mars, for example—and for use on the moon and other places in the solar system. But the first step in that long journey is to show that the technology works in zero-gravity and then deliver preliminary engineering plans for the space station MRI to the CSA for review in January 2019.