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A New Way of Seeing

Inspiration and controversy attended the birth of magnetic resonance imaging, a diagnostic technology that changed the course of human medicine.

By | September 1, 2013

MIT PRESS, AUGUST 2013Thomas Huxley, in his presidential address to the Royal Society in 1885, observed: “What an enormous revolution would be made in biology if physics or chemistry could supply the physiologist with a means of making out the molecular structure of living tissues comparable to that which the spectroscope affords to the inquirer into the nature of heavenly bodies.”

Andrew Huxley, a grandson of Thomas, noted in his own inaugural address in 1980 that his grandfather’s wishes came true with the invention of zeugmatography—better known today as magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI—by Paul Lauterbur in 1971. MRI would change the course of medicine. It became a leading diagnostic tool because it images the soft tissues of the body anatomically, biochemically, and functionally. It is noninvasive and safe, and unlike X-rays or CAT scans, uses no ionizing radiation. My recently published book, Paul Lauterbur and the Invention of MRI, is the story of the man, who was my husband, and his invention.

One day in 1971 Paul happened to observe some nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) measurements on normal and malignant tissues and saw that the signals differed markedly. But the tissue samples were being cut out of rats, and Paul thought such measurements could never be very useful in research or medicine. “It didn’t seem right to kill the patient to diagnose the illness,” he wryly said to me. “It was a bloody messy affair, not the sort of thing chemists are used to seeing. As a naïve chemist, I couldn’t imagine cutting people up to see if they were sick or not.”

He felt there had to be a better way. If he could find a way to localize the NMR signals to specific places in a patient without using harmful invasive procedures, well, that would be a different matter altogether. Physicians could then peer into any part of the body remotely to discern what the problem was, and the patient would be unaffected by the analysis.

That same evening he figured it out. He had taken a fast-food dinner break from work with a friend. “On the second bite of a Big Boy hamburger,” just as he was explaining that the physics of NMR precluded imaging, in midsentence, he arrived at the principle of MRI. “I realized that inhomogeneous magnetic fields labeled signals according to their spatial coordinates, and made a leap of faith to the conclusion that the information could be recovered in the form of images.” Paul ran out to buy a notebook at a nearby drugstore. He spent much of the night refining his thoughts and convincing himself that he was not just on a wild-goose chase. By morning the book was bursting with ideas. This notebook not only describes the fundamentals of MRI but also predicts a great deal of its development during the following 25 years, and into the future.

The early days of MRI were fraught with obstacles. The first and rather blurry images, published in a 1973 issue of Nature, were of two tubes filled with deuterium oxide (D2O). Those images—created with what Paul named zeugmatography after the Greek zeugma, “that which is used for joining”—did not conjure up visions of modern medical diagnosis in anyone’s mind. As the technique developed it was met both with derision (“It violates the Heisenberg uncertainty principle!” said some detractors) and with claims by others to have invented it. SUNY Downstate Medical Center professor Raymond Damadian famously published an ad in major newspapers around the world showing the Nobel Prize printed upside down when he was not included in the award for MRI in 2003. Paul Lauterbur and the Invention of MRI chronicles the life and work of Paul in MRI and other fields, as well as early work of other MRI researchers, including Damadian and Peter Mansfield, Paul’s Nobel corecipient. The story of the basic science behind MRI’s birth has already been told in the literature. My book looks deeper to tell the tale of the technology’s rocky journey to clinical utility.

M. Joan Dawson is Associate Professor Emerita in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She studies function and metabolism of living tissues using NMR spectroscopy and spectroscopic imaging. She was married to Paul Lauterbur from 1984 until his death in 2007. Read an excerpt of Paul Lauterbur and the Invention of MRI.

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