Lung-imaging system wins medical innovation award

A medical-imaging technology that enables earlier diagnoses of lung diseases has won a major medical innovation award.

The system, called Polarised Lung and Respiratory Imaging Solutions (POLARIS), uses high-power lasers to treat noble gases such as helium, which are then inhaled to enhance MRI scans of the lungs.

Researchers from Sheffield University who developed the technology this week received a Medical Futures Innovation Award for the system’s ability to provide more detailed analysis than conventional techniques.

The winning team showed that the process could detect the early stages of lung obstruction from diseases such as emphysema and cystic fibrosis, providing more detail than regular MRI or X-rays and without radiation exposure.

‘We can visualise where the gas goes and that tells us which bits of the lungs are freely ventilated and which bits are obstructed,’ project leader Prof Jim Wild told The Engineer.

‘So in diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis where you get blockages in the lungs, you can visualise that. But there’s much more sensitivity to these gases than just visualising air space.’

By measuring the diffusion of helium through the alveoli pores in the lungs, the technique can pick up the early stages of emphysema when the alveoli break down and more gas diffuses.

This can reveal the damage caused to the lungs of an apparently healthy smoker who still appears to have normal lung function — something that might encourage people to stop smoking before the problem gets any worse.

The idea of using so-called hyperpolarised gases for MRI scans has been around for several years, but the Sheffield team is the first in the UK to develop a system for diagnosing lung diseases and secure a licence to use it.

The technique relies on certain stable isotopes of noble gases such as Helium-3 and Xenon-129, which can be magnetised or polarised to a high degree using a high-power laser process called optical pumping.

Once inhaled, the hyperpolarised gas provides a much higher signal to the MRI equipment than the normal source from blood in the lungs.

‘We’re taking a totally different approach,’ said Wild. ‘We’re taking these magnetised or polarised gases and, when inhaled, they give us a very high signal and we can image the void — the lung air space.’

Sheffield is also working with pharmaceutical companies to develop the technology for assessing inhaled treatments for asthma and emphysema, and for planning radiotherapy in lung cancer patients.

The university holds the only UK regulatory licence to administer both hyperpolarised gases for lung imaging, but the team hopes that the award — for best translational research in respiratory innovation — will help them to commercialise the technology.