MR Solutions, a Guildford, UK-based manufacturer, produces superconducting, cryogen-free, “benchtop” magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems. The company, founded by Dr. David Taylor in 1999, specializes in machines built for use outside traditional healthcare applications and has developed a range of preclinical imaging systems with innumerable applications. In the past, this technology has seen limited adoption due to its size, operating costs and needed expertise, but that’s quickly changing. Cold Facts spoke with Dr. Taylor on March 5 to learn about some of the unexpected applications of these machines and how cryogenics enables the technology.
“I received my PhD in physics from the University of Nottingham at the same time that the university was conducting some of the world’s first MRI experiments and I’ve been in MRI ever since,” Taylor recounts. “I went to the University of Surrey as an academic in ’77 and spun a company out to manufacture MRI systems in ’85 that eventually became MR Solutions in ’99. Since then, I’ve been manufacturing MRI and, laterally, MRI combined with nuclear medicine, that is primarily targeted at the research market.”
MRI technology uses strong magnetic fields, gradients in those fields and radio waves to create an image of the internal structure of a sample. Usually, that sample is a human and the structures being imaged are that person’s organs. These machines, which regularly fill an entire room, rely on massive superconducting magnets that need to be cryogenically cooled. Traditionally, this is done with liquid helium, although MR’s machines are spearheading the trend of going cryogen-free.
“We’re in a unique position in the sense that we can manufacture small superconducting magnets up to 9.4 tesla in a dry magnet configuration,” Taylor explains. “We use a cryocooler with a direct connection to the magnet coils. Besides that, it’s all about how clever your engineering is. There’s always heat leaking in because you have to support the coils in the magnet, so you have to take the heat out faster than it can leak in. Right now, we can get down to about 3.5 K, which is actually colder than liquid helium.”
When it comes to that “clever engineering”, Dr. Taylor isn’t saying much. “You know, I think I’d rather not say,” he says with a laugh. “Either way, the dry system makes the magnet an awful lot lighter and only needs electricity to run. Apart from avoiding the helium shortage problem, it also saves an immense amount of space. MRIs are traditionally in a facility’s basement with a huge infrastructure, but our research systems can be on any floor of any building in any lab.”
The increased accessibility of MR Solutions’ devices has led to some interesting applications outside of traditional oncology—and labs in general. One of the most unexpected has been its application in chicken farming. That’s right: chicken farming.
“The UK and most of Europe just recently banned the barbarous euthanasia of ‘undesirable’ chicks on farms,” Taylor explains. “Chicken farmers want chickens that can lay eggs. Obviously, almost half of all chickens are ‘undesirable’ right off the bat because they are males. Then there are genetic anomalies that would lead to infertility or poor growth. So, everyone wants a way to tell, right after it’s laid, if an egg is female and healthy—before it’s even born. We’re using MRI to develop a technique that does just that.”
Other industries are benefiting from MR Solutions’ unique designs as well. The company recently introduced the ImaCore 3017, a 3D rock core imaging system being deployed by the oil and natural gas sector. The device is the result of a partnership between Green Imaging Technologies, a nuclear magnetic resonance rock core analysis software producer, and is used to supplement flow data by analyzing rock samples at the pore-level. This added information has allowed users to map and model reservoirs more accurately.
“We also sell MRI technology to some clinical companies on an OEM-basis,” Taylor adds. “Recently, there’s been an increase in interest in multimodality systems—systems where you’re doing two modalities at the same time on the same sample or patient, for example—so we’ve been focusing on the big one: combining MRI with PET [Positron Emission Tomography] and other nuclear medicine technologies like CT [Computed Tomography]. One can give you good anatomy and localized information while the other is giving you good functional information. It’s very promising.”
In PET/CT technology, small radioactive particles are directed at a sample or patient to investigate, diagnose and even treat anomalies at the cellular level. This material, called radiotracers or radiopharmaceuticals, can be used to identify and destroy potential unwanted material and diseases with pinpoint accuracy.
A unique combination of research experience, academic exposure, design iterations and manufacturing capability has enabled MR Solutions to provide more than a few unexpected MRI-based solutions to organizations that would not have had access to the technology in the past. While the specifics—wet versus dry magnets, helium shortages and new, more clever engineering—may change, with novel applications being identified all the time, it’s clear that MRI technology has great promise. ■