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Improved metrology for quantitative MRI

NPL along with a consortium of UK and international partners are undertaking a project to realise the potential of quantitative Magnetic Resonance Imaging (qMRI)

Scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), in collaboration with partners from across Europe, are undertaking an international study to unlock the potential of quantitative Magnetic Resonance Imaging (qMRI). The project will develop materials, test objects, imaging protocols, analysis tools, and best practice guidance for various qMRI techniques. The aim is to provide similar metrological underpinning for qMRI to that currently available in Radiotherapy, to ensure consistency and comparability between sites and scanners.

Routine clinical MRI produces images designed for single use, optimised for evaluation by individual medical experts. Although this is a very powerful tool, it lacks consistency when comparing images acquired on different scanners or at different times. Conventional MRI is qualitative, with tissue contrasts which may vary from one scanner to another, so the resulting images are not directly comparable. This is challenging for patient follow-up or in large-scale clinical trials using MRI.

Quantitative MRI (qMRI) uses the same scanner technology in a different way– every pixel in an image contains a measured value of a relevant physical quantity of the tissue being studied. This approach can increase consistency and clinical specificity since these measurements are independently verifiable. The ability to calibrate different scanners reduces data variability, for instance decreasing the sample size required to observe a clear effect in multi-centre trials, and has the potential to reveal new, clinically useful information not present in conventional scans. However, metrological support is required to evaluate scanner performance using well characterised test objects and measurement protocols.

To realise the potential of qMRI techniques and their benefits in healthcare, there is an urgent need to ensure scanners are calibrated to common standards and to develop guidance for quality assurance procedures for routine clinical use. The consortium will support the clinical uptake of qMRI methods by providing a metrological foundation that enables independent validation of qMRI measurements.

This new project aims to develop reference materials, a new test object, optimised imaging procedures, and advanced simulation and data analysis approaches for qMRI, with validation techniques in an international multi-site trial. The team’s results are expected to contribute to future international standards for qMRI and to expedite the clinical deployment of new qMRI techniques.

NPL will be working in partnership with international partners such as Institute of Metrology of Bosnia and Herzegovina (IMBiH), Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRIM) and their commercial spin-out VERLAB, Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK), Careggi University Hospital (AOUC), as well as partners across the UK including the National Measurement Laboratory based at LGC, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust (BHSCT), , University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust (UHBW), and University College London (UCL).

Matt Hall, Principal Research Scientist, NPL states:

“This is a fantastic opportunity to put qMRI techniques on a sound measurement science footing and enable the power of qMRI to be deployed to benefit patients and help clinical specialists. qMRI is a diverse set of approaches which potentially provide extremely rich information about tissue without the need for ionising radiation or invasive biopsy, but there is a pressing need to provide independent reliable calibration procedures and validation of imaging outputs. This international collaboration spans experts in materials, test objects, MR imaging, simulation and informatics, and study design. We’re going to be developing test objects and procedures to maximise consistency between sites and building a collaboration that can help translate some really promising research into clinical practice and make a significant positive difference for patients.”  

Matt Cashmore, Higher Research Scientist, NPL states: quote

As Quantitative MRI techniques are becoming increasingly common it is vital that we can provide the underpinning measurement science necessary for confidence in their results. The combination of National Measurement Laboratories and Clinical experience in this consortium provides a golden opportunity to begin development of standardised test objects and data analysis techniques which will benefit countless patients worldwide”

Sian Curtis, Clinical Scientist, University Hospitals Bristol and Weston states:

“Medical Physics & Bioengineering, UHBW are honoured and excited to be partners in this collaborative study. As MRI Clinical Scientists we understand the importance of developing standardised test objects and methods to validate quantitative MRI applications in clinical practice. We’re very much looking forward to working with NPL and consortium members from such a diverse international scientific community.”

Cormac McGrath, Consultant Clinical Scientist, University Hospitals Bristol and Weston and Head of the Non-Ionising Radiation Group for the Northern Ireland Regional Medical Physics Service states:

“We are very excited to be partners in this project and to be part the next revolution in MRI where MRI scanners will be used, not just fantastic medical imaging devices but as traceable, non-invasive, measuring devices of human tissues. The benefits to patients will be enormous and qMRI will assist in the adoption of other technologies such as Artificial Intelligence.”

Heidi Goenaga-Infante, Chief Scientist, National Measurement Laboratory at LGC, states:

The NML hosted by LGC is delighted to be part of this multi-disciplinary project including metrology institutes, academic and clinical partners across the UK and abroad. As chemists, what we bring is core expertise on the development and characterisation of SI traceable methods and reference test materials for chemical test materials. We will also be taking the role of coordinating a work package that will develop test objects, phantoms and measurement procedures (SI traceable, where possible) to underpin MRI measurements in the clinic. Taking up this role is a great opportunity to work closely with a fantastic team of MRI leading experts and ensure that our knowledge is translated into achieving better comparability of MRI measurements across the globe in the long term. 

28 Sep 2021