In the mid-1980s, cardiologists faced a particularly vexing problem: how to measure, accurately and noninvasively, the thickness of heart tissue as it changed over time. Elias A. Zerhouni, a young radiology professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, struggled over the issue with a small team of physicists. "One day, he walked into the room with this incredible smile on his face, like you would have if you made a great molecular discovery," recalls Myron Weisfeldt, director of Hopkins' Department of Medicine. "'You won't believe what we have, at least in theory,'" Zerhouni announced.

Zerhouni and his team had developed a way to tag cardiac tissue, making it visible to noninvasive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) instruments. The discovery proved to be as practical as it was innovative: The subsequently patented tagging system has become a bedrock MRI technology, used by physiologists, cardiologists, and engineers worldwide.1

"As one...

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