GE to sell device for better MRI scan

Surgi-Vision makes probe in conjunction with Hopkins team

Medical technology

March 11, 2000|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

As far as medical diagnostic devices go, magnetic resonance imaging is tough to beat.

The technology, in use less than 20 years, has unquestionably improved the ability of physicians to make accurate diagnoses of a range of diseases affecting organs and other soft tissues, say experts.

Now, after almost five years of research, a team of Johns Hopkins University doctors and bioengineers have come up with a way to make MRI even more helpful to medicine and somewhat less arduous for patients.

Their breakthrough: a thin probe that can be threaded down the throat to allow images of the esophagus and heart to be gathered and reviewed from inside the body.

Currently available MRI technology, which involves having a patient lie still and quiet while inside a tunnel, can only scan the body from the outside. That results in some distortion to images of what's going on inside.

A big break for the probe came yesterday when blue-chip giant General Electric Co. said its medical equipment division will market and distribute the probe, made by Surgi-Vision Inc., a fledgling Columbia company formed to develop diagnostic probes based on the Hopkins team's research.

Privately held Surgi-Vision received marketing clearance for the device from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in September.

Neither Surgi-Vision nor GE Medical Systems would disclose financial terms of the deal, but the potential market value for the probe and its applications appears significant.

Radiology experts estimate that there are about 5,000 MRI units in operation in the United States. On average, each of those machines is used for about 3,000 procedures annually.

Like catheters and many other medical devices that are used in the body, the Surgi-Vision probe is designed to be used once and then destroyed. That opens the door to repeat orders -- if the probes find wide favor with radiologists.

Paul Bottomley, director of MRI research at Hopkins and a professor of radiology, was among those at Hopkins who worked on developing the probe.

The research team's breakthrough, he said, involved designing a coil 8/100ths of an inch thick that could still pick up radio waves. The team also had to figure out how to retain the coil's ability to capture images of organs and other anatomy despite being so thin.

"The big advantage of the probe is that it brings you much closer to the source of the signals," Bottomley said. "That gives you greater strength and a lot less interference."

The probe also will reduce the need for some patients to be given contrasting agents or exposed to ionizing radiation before the procedure, he said. MRI uses short bursts of radio frequency waves responding to magnetic fields to produce computer images. Physicians can determine a wealth of structural and biochemical information about soft tissue from the expensive procedure.

Initially, the probe will marketed as a way to look for abnormalities in the esophagus and to search for plaque deposits and other signs of heart and vascular trouble.

"This is a first and we are extremely excited about its potential on patient care," said Dennis Cooke, global general manager of GE's MRI division.

Surgi-Vision is working on broadening its applications for capturing images of other parts of the body, said Alan C. Sauber, vice president for operations.

He said the company and GE have not set a unit price for the probe.

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