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MRI Pioneer Awarded Millennium Medal

December 1, 2009

Sir Peter Mansfield, The University of Nottingham’s Nobel Laureate for Physiology and Medicine, is to be recognized, once again, for his part in one of the most important breakthroughs in medical science.

Sir Peter, who was co-inventor of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), is to be presented with the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Millennium Medal at an awards ceremony at the Trent Building, The University of Nottingham on Monday November 30 2009.

The MRC Millennium Medal recognizes an MRC funded scientist for outstanding research which has made a major contribution towards the health and wealth of our society.

Sir Peter, along with the late Paul Lauterbur, harnessed nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to visualize the internal structure of complex objects. In 1976 they produced the first human NMR image, a finger complete with bone, bone-marrow, nerves and arteries. Their research revolutionized the world of diagnostic medicine and in 2003 received world acclaim when Sir Peter and Paul Lauterbur shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Sir Peter’s invention of an extremely fast scanning MRI technique, known as echo-planar imaging (EPI), underpins the most sophisticated MRI applications in clinical use today. EPI is the key to functional MRI (fMRI), which is used to study dynamic processes in living organisms. Before EPI, fMRI was slow and hard to use clinically. EPI speeded up image acquisition and therefore underpins all modern fMRI applications.

MRI and fMRI have transformed neuroscience and physiology research by opening windows on the working brain and body. MRI provides detailed images of anatomical structure and can detect cancer and signs of damage in the body’s bones, tissues and organs. fMRI allows doctors to study brain activity during development, following injury and in brain disorders. It has also been used to investigate how the brain’s neural networks develop during infancy, and to look for subtle abnormalities in brain activity in patients with disorders including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Sir Peter Mansfield, Emeritus Professor of Physics at The University of Nottingham, was the first to step inside the original whole body scanner “” despite warnings that it could be potentially dangerous. He recalls: “There was an audible crack but I felt nothing. I then signaled to start the scan. The magnet was enclosed in aluminum sheeting forming an RF screen. Due to lack of time there was no light inside. I was therefore clamped in the magnet vertically and in pitch darkness for 50 minutes until the procedure was completed. Our wives and fianc©es were present ready to haul me out of the magnet in an emergency, but the whole experiment went well and images were recorded.”

On hearing about the award Sir Peter said: “It was with great pride that my family and I learnt of this immense honor which the MRC wishes to bestow on me. However it must be said that without the then Vice Chancellor, Sir Colin Campbell’s encouragement, little would have resulted and we would not have been able to obtain crucial funding from the MRC, as well as my MRC Professorial Fellowship.

“Our achievements in designing and developing the MRI scanner gave us all a sense of satisfaction in the knowledge that we were able to help many sufferers of a range of illnesses. In those early days, of course, MRI was used to image all parts of the body; these days, especially at Nottingham, MRI has evolved to study the brain and brain function under the leadership of Professor Peter Morris.”

MRC Chief Executive Sir Leszek Borysiewicz commenting on the award said: “MRI has revolutionized medical diagnostics and research, enabling exact and non-evasive imaging of human internal organs. This prestigious award recognizes and celebrates Sir Peter’s achievements in the development of MRI, which today is a multibillion dollar industry. All major hospitals are equipped with MRI whole body scanners, with an estimated 10,000 systems in use worldwide.”

Previous winners of the MRC Millennium Medal, which was inaugurated in 2000, have included Cesar Milstein, for his pioneering work on monoclonal antibodies and Tom Meade, who was awarded the medal in 2002 for his contribution to UK health, particularly in the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease.

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