Ceramic material could improve MRIs by enabling faster times, better images

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — An academic/enterprise partnership that includes Penn State researchers is developing a new dielectric material to enable magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines with shorter scan times and higher image resolutions, good news for cutting the cost of MRI scans for the hospitals and for patients who struggle with MRI-related anxiety. 

HyQ Research Solutions LLC, a company founded in part by Penn State faculty members, has a new approach for MRIs — using ceramic materials to make pads around the human body to enhance the MRI signal, enabling shorter scan times for patients inside the machines. Those who have had an MRI done know that the machine is a huge tube that a person in a prone position is loaded into. Being loaded into such a machine for an extended period, even with open-MRIs with better lighting and better ventilation, can be difficult for patients with claustrophobia.  

Ceramic materials also hold the potential for creating highly detailed images in living humans, especially for head MRIs that examine the brain. MRIs work by applying a strong static magnetic field that enables any tissue containing water to be excited with a radiofrequency (RF) field. The information coming back from the body is then captured by a device known as an RF receive coil. Not only does this process take quite a long time for someone inside an MRI machine, it also is relatively weak and that is why the resolution is rather low. It is truly a bottleneck, according to Michael Lanagan, professor of engineering science and mechanics and co-founder with HyQ Research Solution LLC. 

“Clinical MRI is often used as a tool of last resort because MRI scans are extremely slow and expensive,” Lanagan said. “Anyone who has had an MRI knows that you are in there for half-hour, 45 minutes, and it can be very uncomfortable, with lots of loud noises during the scan.” 

Higher-resolution images are of special interest to researchers in the fields of neuroscience and neuropsychology. HyQ Research Solution, LLC is working on developing a sort of MRI helmet with ceramic materials for subjects to wear to more efficiently gather detailed images of the brain. 

“As far as human impact, a beachhead market for our company would be for researchers to use these helmets,” Lanagan said. “For example, a very detailed image of the brain is really important for Alzheimer disease research. We are working with researchers all over the world to deliver solutions to upgrade their coils and to enable them to improve image quality. We are also working with those who study the metabolism of the brain via MR spectroscopy, technology that allows us to ‘see’ the biomolecules inside our body. Our materials are key to getting enough available signal from a very small number of biomolecules in our brain to study the brain functions and related metabolic changes.” 

This material would give clinicians and researchers options with an MRI.  

“There’s a lot you can do when you increase the MRI signal,” Lanagan said. “If you have a higher signal, you can either scan for less time for faster image acquisition or have better image resolution. You can trade those things off.” 

Other benefits of the ceramic material include the cost of it being much lower than purchasing a higher field strength MRI machine. In addition, the material can be applied to existing MRI machines without any other upgrades and is complementary to other potential upgrades.  

For more than 10 years, Lanagan and HyQ Research Solution LLC co-founders Qing X. Yang, professor of neurosurgery at Penn State Hershey, and Sebastian Rupprecht, CEO and R&D director, HyQ Research Solution LLC, have worked on the MRI signal-enhancing ceramic material. The development of this material led to the founding of the company in 2013, after Lanagan and his colleagues received their initial patent for the novel ceramic material. They worked with the Center for Medical Innovation at Penn State Hershey and the Penn State Office of Entrepreneurship and Commercialization, along with advisors at Ben Franklin Technology Partners.  

“Working with the Penn State offices and Ben Franklin Technology Partners has enabled us to receive funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), along with the revenue from our early scientific customers,” Lanagan said. 

This type of enterprise-higher education partnership is important, Lanagan notes, because it helps to move a research concept from idea to prototype to market where it can benefit society at a faster pace than it might otherwise. Through research service agreements, they had access to Penn State research facilities such as those found in the Millennium Science Complex, and access to a wide variety of expertise in both materials research and clinical radiology. 

“The unique facilities and people that work at a university like Penn State are an incubator to commercialization of research like ours,” Lanagan said. “We still regularly rely on the highly specialized skills and certain equipment that a startup could never have.” 

The next steps for HyQ Research Solution LLC include taking their product to market and transitioning fully to no longer needing to use University facilities. According to Lanagan, they are wrapping up a few projects related to the material. This includes the recently completed America’s Seed Fund/NSF Small Business Innovation Research Phase I Award as a key recent step towards commercialization of the technology at the company. It also includes the NIH Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative projects that they collaborated on with the leading MRI research centers in the world, including the University of Minnesota’s Center for Magnetic Research, New York University, and Stanford.  

“There was a lot of research at Penn State over the last decade in this area, and I feel like a lot of it now is mature enough for us to be more independent,” Lanagan said. “That is really moving to our company at this point. So, for us, this is a time of transition.”