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A world first: Bonn University gets high-performance tomography system

University Of Bonn (Universit : 03 April, 2007  (Technical Article)
A state-of-the-art diagnosis system is now being introduced at the University of Bonn's Radiological Clinic: the first of its kind worldwide, it is a new type of high-field nuclear magnetic resonance tomography spectrometer which opens up completely new possibilities both for clinical application to patients, for clinical research and pure research. Philips have placed the multi-million euro spectrometer at the University's disposal; the Radiological Clinic beat rival applicants from the US, Japan and Europe.
'Our diagnostic possibilities will experience a marked expansion by the use of high-field magnetic resonance tomography,' the Director of the University Radiological Clinic, Professor Hans Schild, explains. Even now magnetic resonance or MRI scanners are regarded as the ultimate in medical diagnostics. They enable medical staff to look inside the body without the body suffering the effects of radiation. As a result, radiologists can detect diseases in virtually all parts of the body very precisely and at a very early stage, as a rule better than with all the other methods of examination such as ultrasound, X-rays or catheter examinations. The tomography data also give answers to some tricky questions: thus magnetic resonance tomography helps in planning tumour operations, it permits us to detect where the language centre is located in the brain, whether there is narrowing of the coronary vessels and how this can be remedied. However, the new 3-Tesla high-field system currently being installed on Bonnís Venus Hill, which uses especially strong magnetic fields, can do far more than this. Radiologist Dr. Christiane Kuhl is convinced that 'the machine will not only improve existing examination techniques; in fact we expect that it will enable us to use fundamentally new diagnostic approaches.' Not only in the clinical field, e.g. in the early detection of cancer such as breast cancer, in the detection of imminent cardiac infarction or neurological diseases such as strokes or multiple sclerosis, is she expecting tangible progress. 'In the field of patient-related pure research, too, for instance the investigation of the functioning of the brain so as to improve the treatment of epilepsy and strokes, ultra high-field technology will imply a big step forward.'

An additional essential field of research which will become accessible for the first time via the new technology is molecular imaging. In this method scientists mark pharmacologically effective molecules and follow their distribution directly in the living organism, i.e. not only as in the past in cell cultures. Such methods are, for example, important for stem-cell research, since the researchers can thereby check whether the implanted stem cells really do migrate into the targeted tissue and replace, where necessary, diseased cells. 'We hope that in future it will be possible in this way to check the effectiveness of therapeutic approaches involving gene technology and to detect side-effects or complications as early as possible,' Professor Schild says. Molecular imaging, which is only possible with high-field NMR systems, can thus contribute to making the clinical application of gene technology safer and avoid endangering or imposing unnecessary strain on patients.

Basically, NMR tomography makes use of the fact that atomic nuclei, for example the many hydrogen nuclei in the human body, to some extent are like tiny magnets. The spectrometer creates around the body a high magnetic field, in which the miniature magnets line up like compass needles, and they do this all the more the stronger the external magnetic field is. By using a radio-wave impulse (with a frequency roughly comparable to FM radio) the 'compass needles' are partly 'pushed' out of this alignment. If the radio-wave impulse is switched off, the 'compass needles' realign themselves to the magnetic field. This realignment is dependent on the material or tissue involved and can be measured by tomography; from these data a picture of the inside of the body can be reconstructed. The higher the external magnetic field, the more exact the data are. The super-conducting magnet coils of the new spectrometer can create a field of 3 Teslas, compared with the previous norm of a maximum of one and a half Teslas.

In competition with institutions and universities from the US, Japan and Europe the University Radiological Clinic had been able to position itself so convincingly that Philips' scientific directorate chose Bonn as the first location for its multi-million euro high-field NMR tomography system. 'High-field technology is an ideal complement to the current profile of the University of Bonn and will further strengthen its position as an efficient, internationally competitive institution in the life science field,' the radiologist Professor Schild emphasises. The Rector of the University of Bonn, Professor Klaus Borchard, also views the decision by Philips as a clear sign of the high regard in which the University is held: 'The fact that Bonn's alma mater was able to assert itself against prestigious international applicants shows that the University is successfully responding to the changing requirements of a modern academic infrastructure. This coup for Bonn will increase the importance of the University and the region as a location for R&D even further.'
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