Werner von Siemens Ring awarded to Jens Frahm

January 28, 2020

The number is gigantic: About 100 million examinations are carried out with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) every year – and every scanner worldwide uses the technology developed by Jens Frahm with his team at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Biophysical Chemistry. For his achievements, the physicist has now been awarded the Werner von Siemens Ring, one of the most important German technology prizes. Back in the early days of MRI in the 1980s, a single cross-sectional image took minutes to acquire. Frahm’s FLASH technology reduced that to seconds – making it at least 100 times faster. It was this acceleration that made the MRI application in diagnostics possible. Frahm's newest invention, FLASH 2, accelerates MRI even further and enables taking videos of a beating heart or other moving organs – with up to 100 frames per second.

If Alfred Nobel had lived a few decades later, there would certainly be a Nobel Prize for groundbreaking technological advancements. Luckily, the legacy of another visionary took on this task: During his lifetime, Werner von Siemens was convinced that science and technology are always going together thus triggering innovation and progress. Since 1916, the Werner von Siemens Ring Foundation has been honoring people who have greatly shaped and progressed the history of technology. The prize, a uniquely crafted ring for the recipient, goes to Max Planck researcher Jens Frahm from Göttingen this year. “With this ring, we are honoring the incredible achievements that Jens Frahm has accomplished for medical diagnostics,” explains Joachim Ullrich, President of the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) and the Chairman of the Council of the Werner von Siemens Ring Foundation.

The triumph of magnetic resonance imaging

As a physicist, Frahm specialized in biological and medical applications early on. In 1982, he was already the head of an independent research group at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry focusing on MRI. When Paul Lauterbur invented MRI in 1973, it had a major drawback: It was too slow. As a consequence, the promising idea of producing images from inside the body without dangerous radiation and excellent soft-tissue contrast did not really catch on at that time. The technology is based on a combination of a strong magnetic field and radiofrequency waves in the FM range. When a human body is placed within a magnet, the MRI 'tube', the nuclei of hydrogen atoms act like small magnets themselves which respond with their own radiofrequency signal when excited by a short radiofrequency impulse. This signal is measured many times with slightly different 'views'. Using this information, images of soft body tissues can be calculated. However, several minutes were required for each section in the beginning.

Frahm had the crucial idea to only use part of the available MRI signal for each of the numerous repetitive measurements needed for an image. With this physical trick – the FLASH method – he was able to completely eliminate the pause previously required for signal recovery. This radically reduced the measurement time by a factor of 100 and was the breakthrough in MRI. Nowadays, the technology is used to answer all types of questions: Does a person have tissue abnormalities in the brain? Does an accident victim have internal injuries? Is there a herniated disc? Has a heart been damaged – structurally or functionally?

Filming the beating heart

In 2010, Frahm and his team opened the door to MRI videos by massively accelerating the method again. FLASH 2, the step towards real-time MRI, is based on a new mathematical procedure for image reconstruction which now may be accomplished with only a very small number of repetitive measurements and, therefore, much shorter measuring times.

Real-time MRI video: speaking

This video shows in real-time MRI how the lips, tongue, soft palate, and larynx move when speaking.

Film recordings of a chest during free breathing, of a beating heart – even for patients with cardiac arrhythmias, of joints at work, or of complex processes such as speech or swallowing are now possible – at 30, 50, or even 100 images per second. In future, the new technology will also be used as a tool for monitoring minimally invasive interventions replacing conventional X-ray controls. Real-time MRI is currently being tested for routine clinical use at the University Medical Center Göttingen as well as several other universities in Germany, Great Britain, and the United States.

About Jens Frahm

Jens Frahm studied physics at the University of Göttingen and received his PhD in physical chemistry at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry. He then worked at the institute as a scientific assistant and founded the Biomedical NMR research group in 1982. He habilitated at the University of Göttingen in 1994 and became an associate professor there at the Faculty of Chemistry in 1997. Frahm is listed as the owner of four patents. For his research work, he has been awarded numerous prizes, including the European MRI Award of the Deutsche Röntgengesellschaft (1989), the Gold Medal Award of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (1991), the Karl Heinz Beckurts Prize (1993), the Research Prize of the Sobek Foundation (2005), the Stifterverbandspreis (2013), the Jacob Henle Medal (2016), and the European Inventor Award (2018). Frahm was elected into the Hall of Fame for German research in 2016.

About the Werner von Siemens Ring Foundation

The Werner von Siemens Ring Foundation is committed to shaping and achieving a viable world. The  independent, non-profit, private foundation located in Berlin was founded on the occasion of Werner von Siemens' 100th birthday on December 19, 1916. The foundation has been awarding the Werner von Siemens Ring to personalities “who have, just like Siemens, made excellent and recognized achievements to promote technology in connection with science”. The Werner von Siemens Ring (an honorary ring for services to the natural sciences and technology) ranks among the highest German awards in this field. 

The impressive list of ring winners such as Carl von Linde, Carl von Bosch, Konrad Zuse, Artur Fischer, and many more is now a who's who list of technological innovators in Germany.

For a century, the Werner von Siemens Ring and the scientists who have been decorated with the Ring have been important points of reference and have motivated generations of researchers in the technical and the natural sciences. This has been possible thanks to the commitment of the scientists decorated with the Ring together with the technical expert societies, the presidents and directors of the PTB, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, the Max Planck Society, the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, the Federation of German Industries, the Deutscher Verband Technisch-Wissenschaftlicher Vereine, and the VDI/VDE. The President of the PTB, which was founded in 1887 as the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (“Imperial Physical Technical Institute” – PTR) by Werner von Siemens, is the Chair of the Foundation's council. 

"We have solved a central problem of magnetic resonance imaging," says Jens Frahm. In an interview with PTB President Joachim Ullrich, the prize winner explains his breakthroughs with the FLASH technology.

Press release from the PTB/es/cr



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