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UB leads $3.7 million project to improve MRI technology

MRI scanner.

MRI has increasingly become the diagnostic tool of choice for evaluating and managing diseases and injuries of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue, but it still has some limitations.

By JANE STOYLE WELCH

Published November 2, 2020

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Portrait of UB biomedical engineering researcher Xiaoliang Zhang.
“We expect this research to have a long-term clinical impact in the management of musculoskeletal system injuries, as well as peripheral vascular diseases, joint/cartilage disorders, and complications associated with diabetes, osteoporosis and rheumatism in humans. ”
Xiaoliang Zhang, SUNY Empire Innovation Professor
Department of Biomedical Engineering

Diseases and injuries of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue, such as ligaments, tendons and bone, are a major cause of disability in the U.S.

MRI has increasingly become the diagnostic tool of choice for evaluation and management of these diseases and injuries, primarily due to its ability to provide information on anatomic structure and function in a noninvasive way.

But modern MRI still have some limitations.

Its ability to show connective tissue is hampered by inadequate sensitivity and the slow process of completing a MRI scan. Semi-solid and solid tissues, including collagen-rich tissues such as calcified ligaments and tendons, as well as periosteum, cortical bone and trabecular bone, provide a weak magnetic resonance signal due to their fast signal decay.

In addition, during the long time it takes to complete an MRI scan, involuntary movements of people negatively affect the clarity of the images, posing a critical challenge in obtaining high-resolution images with diagnostic value.

To address these issues, biomedical engineer Xiaoliang Zhang, a SUNY Empire Innovation Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is leading a team of researchers — from UB; University of California, Berkeley; Stanford University; University of Minnesota; Cleveland Clinic; and GE Global Research — to develop advanced MRI techniques.

UB's Department of Biomedical Engineering is a joint program of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Funded by a five-year, $3.7 million Bioengineering Research Partnership U01 grant from the National Institutes of Health, the team will develop sensitive imaging tools for morphological and functional characterization of ligaments, tendons and bone, which are essential for studying semi-solid connective tissues in health and disease.

“Through a synergistic bioengineering research partnership, we will develop advanced flexible and wearable imaging hardware, fast imaging techniques and imaging sequences at the ultrahigh field of 7 Tesla to deliver a comprehensive imaging tool,” says Zhang.

The images, above on the left, show a 7 Tesla (very strong magnetic field) MRI detector array that’s flexible and wearable. The black and white images on the right show high resolution imaging, 200 µm (micrometers), of isotropic resolution of a human knee (left) and a foot. Credit: Xiaoliang Zhang, University at Buffalo.

The images, above on the left, show a 7 Tesla (very strong magnetic field) MRI detector array that’s flexible and wearable. The black and white images on the right show high resolution imaging, 200 µm (micrometers), of isotropic resolution of a human knee (left) and a foot. Credit: Xiaoliang Zhang, University at Buffalo

In addition to these technologies, the team will also investigate the use of ultra-short echo time and zero echo time methods, which have shown unparalleled capability to image solid and semi-solid tissues that are normally invisible in MRI scans.

“We expect this research to have a long-term clinical impact in the management of musculoskeletal system injuries, as well as peripheral vascular diseases, joint/cartilage disorders, and complications associated with diabetes, osteoporosis and rheumatism in humans,” says Zhang.

Zhang is an internationally renowned expert in magnetic resonance imaging and its biomedical applications. He joined UB in 2018 from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and UC Berkeley and UCSF’s Joint Biomedical Engineering Program, where he was professor and director of High Field MR Imaging Technology.

“We are fortunate to have Xiaoliang in Buffalo and our department, thanks to the SUNY Empire Innovation Professor program. He is leading our efforts to improve healthcare, and working with our students to develop the next leaders in this field,” says Albert Titus, professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Zhang is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE), and has received numerous awards, including the Outstanding Contribution Award from the Overseas Chinese Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, Distinguished Investigator Award from the Academy of Radiology Research in Washington, D.C., and the UCSF Award for Established Investigator in Basic and Clinical/Translational Sciences.