Technology for research saves lives

Technology developed to advance STFC-funded research in particle physics and astronomy has underpinned the development of MRI scanners; a £195m industry that saves lives, improves diagnosis and allows more targeted treatment.

UK advances in particle physics technology not only supported important experiments at CERN but pioneered early developments in superconducting magnets, which in turn led to the development of MRI scanners. ‘Rutherford Cable’ is a type of superconducting cable that was invented at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory for particle physics applications. Now that technology is used extensively in superconducting magnets and a broad range of other applications, including inside every MRI scanner worldwide. This represents a multi billion pound market for British companies such as Oxford Instruments - the MRI industry supported around 4,000 jobs in 2007, with an estimated value-added contribution to UK GDP of £195 million.

MRI technology has revolutionised healthcare. There are more than 20,000 MRI scanners installed around the world performing 60 million examinations every year. Around 500 scanners in UK hospitals carry out more than 1 million examinations every year, making a huge contribution to government targets for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer; 700 UK women each year are saved from breast cancer alone. They can be used to look at almost any part of the body and are often used to speed diagnosis and recovery of patients suffering from conditions that affect the brain and nervous system, eg dementia, strokes and Parkinson’s. They are also used to identify damage suffered during heart attacks, or assess damage to cartilage, tendons and ligaments sustained in sports injuries. One of the main advantages of MRI is that unlike X-rays, it does not involve exposing the body to radiation and for this reason it is an import way of monitoring foetal defects in pregnancy.

Further developments in MRI scanning have evolved out of STFC-funded astrophysics research. Blackford Analysis is a University of Edinburgh spinout company that uses distant star imaging techniques to stabilise MRI images of moving patients, allowing the elderly and young children to be scanned without anaesthetic. This product also aligns 3D medical scans in real time, increasing radiography throughput by 10% which has been estimated to be worth $1.2bn in the US alone. The underlying Blackford Analysis technology is also applicable in the defence, oil & gas and security sectors and recently won the CEO THALES Scottish Technology Prize for an application of the company’s technology to Improvised Explosive Device detection.

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