European Inventor Award for fast MRI in medical diagnostics

Jens Frahm wins in the category Research

June 07, 2018
The European Patent Office (EPO) has honored Jens Frahm of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen with the European Inventor Award 2018 for his ground-breaking advances in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In two steps, the physicist and his team succeeded in speeding up MRI by a factor of up to 10,000 and established it in clinical practice.

In the category Research, Frahm won against his fellow nominees, the British researchers Eileen Ingham and John Fisher as well as the Polish team led by Jacek Jemielity, Joanna Kowalska, and Edward Darżynkiewicz. In his acceptance speech on the occasion of the award ceremony for the European Inventor Award on June 7th in Saint-Germain-en-Laye (France), the newly elected winner thanked all and praised his entire team: “The European Inventor Award is a great honor and a wonderful recognition of our innovative work as a research team. I am really grateful to the many fantastic colleagues who have been working together on this, contributing to a joint idea.”

In the first MRI machines in the 1970s, patients had to lie completely still for several minutes so that a single image could be taken – a major disadvantage compared to the significantly faster ultrasound and X-ray technologies. Frahm revolutionized MRI by making it radically faster. The FLASH technology developed by him and his team reduced image acquisition rates from minutes to seconds and subsequently made it one of the most important imaging methods for clinical diagnostics. In contrast to X-ray methods, such as computed tomography, this technique does not expose the body to harmful radiation and, therefore, is completely safe for patients. Today, around 100 million MRI scans are performed worldwide every year; all using Frahm's FLASH technology. With the FLASH2 method, Frahm and co-workers achieved a second major breakthrough in 2010 with real-time MRI. Recordings with up to 100 images per second allowed for the first time to film dynamic processes inside of our body, live – another decisive advancement for medical diagnosis.

MRI exploits the magnetic properties of hydrogen nuclei in water molecules, which are ubiquitous in the human body. In MRI scanners, these hydrogen nuclei align themselves parallel to the magnetic field lines generated by the device. The nuclei are then deflected from their equilibrium state by a short radio pulse. When they return to their original orientation, they in turn emit radio waves, which are recorded by highly sensitive coils. Repeated many times, these location-dependent signals can be used to compute an image that enables excellent visualization of organs and vessels.

FLASH makes MRI 100 times faster

The first MRI scan of a person in 1977 took exactly four hours and 45 minutes – an unsuitable “snail's pace” for everyday clinical use. “The very long measurement times in MRI at the time were due to the many individual measurements with different spatial encodings and the necessary pauses in between,” the Max Planck researcher explains. “Our idea in the 1980s was to use only part of the available MRI signal for each measurement. With this physical trick, we were able to completely eliminate the pauses and dramatically shorten the measurement times with FLASH by at least a factor of 100”. In just a few minutes, a high-resolution, three-dimensional MRI image was possible – without any loss in image quality.

Leading manufacturers of MRI devices took over FLASH within a few months. As the Max Planck Society's most profitable patent to date, the technology has generated around 155 million euros in license revenues.

FLASH2: live MRI videos

In 2010, Frahm and his team, presenting FLASH2, finally also solved the problem of needing a large number of individual measurements. In simple terms, FLASH2 is the FLASH technology in video speed. It uses a new mathematical algorithm for image reconstruction from only very few measurements with different spatial encodings. The technique considerably accelerated the MRI image acquisition once again and made it possible to directly observe any movement inside the body such as joints in motion, the beating heart or complex processes such as speaking or swallowing.

This could benefit patients with joint or heart problems as well as people with speech disorders, difficulties in swallowing, or heartburn. In real-time MRI, for example, unlike conventional MRI examinations, cardiac patients do not have to hold their breath due to the high image rate, nor do they have to be controlled by the ECG signal. “This allows doctors to examine the beating heart comprehensively in a new way in a much shorter time and helps to analyze cardiac arrhythmias more precisely,” the physicist says. Real-time MRI is currently being tested for routine patient use at the University Medical Center, Göttingen and in several other universities in Germany, Great Britain, and the United States. “This European Inventor Award will further strengthen our motivation to apply science for people. I am sure the tremendous public awareness will help to accelerate the translation of our real-time MRI invention into broader clinical practice,” Frahm adds.

Playing horn live

Real-time MRI provided new insights not only in medicine, but also in completely different areas such as music. In a joint study with the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien, Hannover, Frahm, who plays clarinet himself, examines how sound is produced in brass instruments such as the horn. This study also involved musicians from the Berliner Philharmoniker. Seeing their own playing movements live revealed surprising insights to the brass players: Unlike previously thought, tongue movements are largely responsible for the generation and quality of tones. Such findings already affect various aspects of musical education and may help to treat occupational diseases of brass musicians such as focal dystonia. (cr)

<p>Real-time MRI film of a horn-playing musician. The horn (a natural horn) was built especially for use in the MRI scanner and is played here lying down. The mouthpiece of the horn is not visible. This application is particularly interesting to examine professional musicians with a muscle disorder in the mouth.

Horn playing in the MRI scanner

Real-time MRI film of a horn-playing musician. The horn (a natural horn) was built especially for use in the MRI scanner and is played here lying down. The mouthpiece of the horn is not visible. This application is particularly interesting to examine professional musicians with a muscle disorder in the mouth.
<span>The tongue in beatbox mode: Gaucho (Timo Schnepf) performs freestyle inside a real-time MRI scanner (50 images per second).</span>

Beatboxing in real time

The tongue in beatbox mode: Gaucho (Timo Schnepf) performs freestyle inside a real-time MRI scanner (50 images per second).

About Jens Frahm

Jens Frahm, born in Oldenburg in 1951, studied physics at the University of Göttingen and carried out research for his PhD in physical chemistry at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry. Even then, his research topic was to make processes in the human body visible: As a young doctoral student, he investigated the medical application of the then novel magnetic resonance imaging. He then worked as a scientific assistant at the same institute, where he headed the independent Biomedical NMR research group from 1982 to 1992. Frahm has been director at the Biomedizinische NMR Forschungs GmbH, a non-profit organization set up within the institute, since 1993. He habilitated at the University of Göttingen in 1994 and became adjunct professor at the university’s chemistry department in 1997. He is listed as the inventor of four European patents.

Jens Frahm received many prizes for his research work, including the European MRI Award of the German X-Ray Society (1989), the Gold Medal Award of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (1991), the Karl Heinz Beckurts Award (1993), the Research Award of the Sobek Foundation (2005), the Stifterverband Award (2013), and the Jacob Henle Medal (2016). He was elected into the Hall of Fame of German Research in 2016.

About the European Inventor Award

The European Inventor Award will be awarded for the 13th time in 2018 and is one of the most important innovation prizes in Europe. It has been awarded annually by the EPO since 2006 and honors individual inventors and teams of inventors whose ground-breaking developments provide answers to the great challenges of our time. A high-caliber international jury from the worlds of industry, politics, science, and research then reviews the extent to which the nominated inventors have contributed to technical and social progress, prosperity, and the creation of jobs in Europe.

The public is also invited to contribute to decide for a victor: The winner of the Popular Prize is elected from the 15 finalists (three finalists in the five categories) by online voting on the EPO website prior to the ceremony.

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