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MRIs work great. These Cincinnati researchers want to know if they can work better

person lying on MRI scanner bed preparing to enter the long tube. Another person in scrubs appears to be conducting the imaging.
GE HealthCare
GE HealthCare is creating the magnet for the new center's MRI machine.

MRIs, or magnetic resonance imaging, are highly effective and can provide detailed images of bones, muscles, organs — basically everything inside the human body. The question is: how can they be even better? That's the answer a new, multi-million dollar MRI Research Center seeks to find.

"There are a lot of different advances that we think we can make if we had dedicated time to work on it," says Mary Mahoney, MD, chair of the University of Cincinnati's Department of Radiology and chief of imaging services at UC Health. "Better scanning techniques, more non-invasive ways that we can look at the body, more precision imaging that we could come up with better diagnoses."

Most MRI machines are being used for clinical purposes, Mahoney says, so it's hard to find time to use one for research. UC, UC Health, Cincinnati Children's, and GE HealthCare are partnering with JobsOhio and REDI Cincinnati to build an MRI research lab on UC's medical campus. Scientists and engineers from GE HealthCare will work alongside clinicians on research and development.

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"The idea behind the center is that it's intended to help us do better imaging, come up with better coils, [and] innovate better technology by putting the scientists and the clinicians together."

Mahoney offers an example of how the science behind coils in particular is already improving. Coils are typically very rigid and contain a lot of technology. They're placed around or over the area being scanned during an MRI. They can be heavy and uncomfortable. GE HealthCare has created a flexible coil that can be wrapped directly over the skin.

"By coming up with this new, innovative way of developing their coils — these flexible coils — we can wrap them around patients and wrap them in areas that allow us more flexibility, improve comfort, better image quality, get closer to the area of concern, and they're lighter, they're softer, they're more comfortable."

All that, she says, is more efficient, too, because the scans can be done more quickly and they provide better images. What might currently take eight "sequences" — the number of different types of scans — could be done in half as many, as an example. The center also will work on improving and testing techniques.

"We have developed techniques where we can change the proton density and not need to use intravenous contrast — [a great] advantage to a patient to not have to have any injections [because] we can alter the way we scan and still get the information we need.

"There's lots of things that we're going to do: coil development, sequence development, faster scanning, more efficient scanning, better image quality," she says.

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Mahoney anticipates the research center will be ready to open in the first part of 2025. She says those involved are hopeful they can deliver their first findings at the Radiological Society of North America's annual conference at the end of 2025.

There's an educational angle, as well. Mahoney says that's what caught the eye of the folks at JobsOhio. She says the center will involve students from UC's biomedical engineering department.

"We can start training technologists on advanced imaging techniques. We can start training research coordinators on the ins and outs of clinical trials. ... Bringing all these people in is going to help patients, but also, let's start growing a workforce right here at UC that we can profit from in the sense of more technologists — we have such a shortage of technologists — more scientists, more engineers, more coil developers."

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.