Low-cost MRI scanner built for health care in poor countries

Hong Kong team build prototype at fraction of the cost of $3m scanners

MRI machines are valuable tools in disease diagnosis, but come with a high price tag. Chris Whiteoak/ The National
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Engineers in Hong Kong have built a prototype low-cost MRI scanner that could bring sophisticated disease diagnosis to less wealthy nations.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines that identify diseases and spot injuries are currently out of reach for 70 per cent of the world’s population because of their high price tag – up to $3 million – and expensive running costs of about $15,000 a month, said researchers in Nature Communications.

But the team from the University of Hong Kong has built a unit that can be plugged into a conventional socket and costs about $20,000 to build, bringing advanced medical science to poor communities.

“Such technology has the potential to meet clinical needs at point of care or in low and middle-income countries,” the developers said.

More than 150 million investigations with MRI are performed each year around the world. They allow doctors to diagnose diseases and conditions including tumours, strokes, blood clots, muscle and bone injuries. MRI is based on the use of powerful magnets to produce three-dimensional images.

The machinery has to be housed in specialised units and highly-trained radiologists are needed to interpret the results.

The study found that more than 90 per cent of the 65,000 scanners around the world were in high-income countries because of the cost. It compared with about 1.5 million ultrasound scanners, a cheaper and less sophisticated alternative for some conditions that can only survey small amounts of the body at a time.

The researchers said that most doctors only needed to use a small portion of the increasingly sophisticated MRI machines to diagnose conditions, opening the way for lower-cost machines that require less power, maintenance and have lower running costs.

The study said that previous attempts at cheaper scanners had not shown high enough image quality to be used for medical purposes. But technological advances in the last two years suggested the “possibility of generating brain images with low-cost hardware, though the imaging versatility and image quality remain unknown”.

The authors assessed 25 patients to diagnose neurological diseases, including stroke and tumours, using the low-cost scanner and found that it detected most of the issues.

The Hong Kong researchers said the scanner could be used for brain imaging to complement high-spec MRI machines. They are publishing the design to allow wider use.

Updated: December 14, 2021, 4:40 PM