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Medical imaging


Medical imaging is used in research and in clinical practice to create visual representations of the interior of the body, using techniques such as X-ray, computer tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Functional and molecular information can increasingly be provided alongside anatomical information by using techniques such as electro-encephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG) functional MRI (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET). Major areas of interest within the MRC’s remit are research in neuroscience, cancer, and the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

The MRC has invested heavily in imaging research over recent years, including

  • provision of 7T MRI infrastructure, including 3 new 7T scanners; partly funded through the Clinical Research Infrastructure (CRI) Initiative
  • support for infrastructure, innovation and implementation in PET-MRI research

MRC co-funds (with EPSRC) three Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) related to medical imaging:

Together with significant investments from other research councils and other research funders, investment from the MRC has increased the number of, and accessibility to, imaging modalities for medical research.

Applications for funding to use and advance medical imaging in research can be submitted through response-mode in any of the MRC’s relevant science areas.

    Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

    Ultra-high field MRI using scanners equipped with 7 Tesla (7T) magnets is an area of intensive research and development internationally, representing the cutting edge of biomedical imaging in humans. Over the last decade, 7T MRI scanners have evolved from bespoke research systems into clinical research tools within the reach of the broader imaging community. 7T MRI has greatly enhanced the range of anatomical, functional and metabolic features that can be visualised in the intact body, and particularly in the brain.

    MRC has invested in new 7T scanners in partnership with:

    • University of Cambridge (CRI, 2014)
    • Cardiff University (CRI, 2014)
    • University of Glasgow (Glasgow & Clyde Valley City Deal, 2015).

    We also supported the refurbishment of existing 7T facilities at University of Nottingham and upgraded the 3T MRI scanner at the Dementia Research Scanner Centre, UCL.

    To support the collaborative working of all the UK’s 7T MRI sites, including MRC-funded sites and the 7T scanners at University of Oxford and King’s College London, the MRC has funded a partnership grant for a UK7T Network (PI: Richard Bowtell, University of Nottingham, £1.05m, 2015; Gateway to Research; www.uk7t.org). The network will share expertise, build capacity and develop harmonised approaches to data acquisition, sharing and analysis.

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    Hyperpolarised MRI

    Hyperpolarization (HP) techniques have the potential to improve MRI sensitivity for the diagnosis and management of various diseases. HP techniques, can allow imaging of tissue concentrations of a wide range of substances, such as Dynamic Nuclear Polarisation using Carbon-13 to label either drugs or simple metabolites. Progress towards clinical translation has been made in lung imaging using HP gas MRI with helium and xenon isotopes. HP xenon MRI is also used in brain imaging and biosensors.  

    The MRC has funded:

    • An upgrade of the HP gases and proton MRI facilities at the University of Sheffield for clinical lung imaging and creation of a national hyperpolarised gas imaging facility for collaborating institutions without access to this technology. (PI: James Wild, University of Sheffield, £7.5m, 2015; Gateway to Research).
    • The development of advanced hyperpolarisation techniques at the Universities of Leeds and York, including development of a new imaging method (SABRE) that has the potential to increase the signal in a MRI image by up to 100,000 fold (PI: Sven Plein, £0.9m, 2015; Gateway to Research).
    • A 13C hyperpolariser (University of Cambridge).

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    Positron Emission Tomography (PET)

    PET is a nuclear medicine imaging technique that operates at the molecular level and allows researchers to observe e.g. metabolic processes. PET works by tracking the radioactivity released from molecules of interest (such as glucose) that have been radiolabelled to form radiotracers or radioligands. Development of radiotracers/radioligands is a major scientific endeavour. PET imaging can be combined with anatomical information, for example from CT or MR imaging. The major uses of PET include neuroscience (to provide quantitative pharmacokinetic and dynamic data), cancer (to obtain images of tumours for diagnosis and radiochemistry) and cardiovascular disease.

    PET radiotracers are used throughout the translational medicine developmental pathway, for diagnosis, to stratify populations, as a tool for drug development and to gain a better understanding of disease biology. Challenges associated with PET imaging include the need to use radiation, relative complexity compared with other imaging modalities, cost and the invasive nature of PET studies.

    To support PET-based research in the UK, the MRC has previously worked with partners from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the National Cancer Research Institute. Links to guidance and advice can be found on the MHRA website and on the NCRI-PET Core Lab website.

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    PET-MRI is a hybrid technology that delivers simultaneous MRI and PET images from a single machine, providing information on anatomy, blood flow and metabolism in one scan. Through the CRI Initiative the MRC has funded:

    • Five PET-MRI scanners within the Dementia Platform UK (DPUK) imaging network, at University of Cambridge, University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London, University of Manchester and Newcastle University.
    • Equipment for radiochemistry at Cambridge, Cardiff, Imperial College London and Newcastle.
    • A Partnership Grant to support coordination between seven UK PET-MRI centres working in the field of dementia research (PI: Karl Herholz, University of Manchester, £0.9m; Gateway to Research).

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    MRC review of PET imaging

    In 2017 MRC carried out a Review of PET within the Medical Imaging Research Landscape (PDF, 1.17MB), a field in which the UK is world-leading. The review surveyed clinical and research use of PET, the likely future demand for PET, and bottlenecks such as capacity and costs. Perceived challenges for medical imaging research using PET in the UK include:

    • Efficient development and supply of PET radiotracers.
    • Training, recruitment and retention of radiochemists, chemists, modellers, cyclotron engineers.
    • The availability of people with Good Manufacturing Process (GMP) / Quality Assurance (QA) expertise and GMP facilities.

    MRC’s vision for the future of PET in the UK includes building on significant past investment; addressing capacity and resourcing issues in partnership with e.g. the NHS; and broadening PET awareness and use outside of neuroscience and oncology, for example in infection, mitochondrial biology, inflammation, and cardiology. 

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    Magnetoencephalography (MEG)

    MEG is a functional neuroimaging technique for mapping brain activity in which very sensitive magnetometers are used to record magnetic fields produced by the electrical activity of the brain. The main applications of MEG are clinical investigations and cognitive neuroscience research. MRC has funded:

    • A Partnership Grant (PI: Krishna Singh, Cardiff University, £0.8m, joint MRC/EPSRC funding, 2013; Gateway to Research) to build multi-site clinical research capacity in MEG. This brings together eight UK centres in Cardiff, Oxford, UCL, Cambridge, Aston, Nottingham, York and Glasgow, through academic networking activities, training programmes, joint studentships and the establishment of unified protocols for data acquisition, analysis and storage.

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    Translational research

    To advance translational research, researchers must seek ways to strengthen industry-academic collaboration in the context of international competition.

    In essence, the MRC is seeking to facilitate better interaction between industry and academia, and expand the use of PET technology throughout the UK. The goal is to make UK PET imaging research more internationally competitive and to ensure that scientific innovation is implanted in research and clinical practice.

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    For further information or queries contact Richard Evans.