Imaging Visionaries

On the corner of Vanderbilt’s Medical Center Drive and 21st Avenue is a research institute that houses what is likely the single largest, most comprehensive imaging center in the country. The Vanderbilt University Institute of Imaging Science puts the most advanced imaging techniques literally at the doorstep of Vanderbilt University Medical Center physicians who want to find new ways of advancing medicine, education specialists at Peabody College looking to improve learning methods, and engineers researching new technologies.

John Gore

“We get support from all parts of the university, and the thing that distinguishes us from others is that we’re transinstitutional,” says institute director John Gore, Hertha Ramsey Cress University Professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences and Biomedical Engineering. At other universities, imaging research would be headquartered in either radiology or engineering, but VUIIS transcends the usual compartments. “This setting allows us the best of both worlds.”

One of the most highly regarded research groups in the world in biomedical imaging, the imaging institute explores virtually every aspect of imaging science, from the underlying physics of imaging to applications of imaging techniques to detect, diagnose and treat disease.

“We have the tools that provide the right information and we don’t have the constraints of being spread around,” Gore says. “We were fortunate that the administration had a vision for how everything should be knit together.”

That vision was implemented by Gore, the renowned imaging expert who came to Vanderbilt from Yale in 2002 to set up the institute. Gore assembled a team of the best imaging scientists to develop advanced research using the latest, most powerful imaging equipment available.

In summer 2010, the center received a $3.45 million federal stimulus grant to purchase a new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner to study small animals. The 15 Tesla scanner (one Tesla is roughly 20,000 times the strength of the magnetic field of the Earth) can produce detailed images of the brain and body, as well as measure minute levels of key compounds. It will be used in noninvasive studies of genetically engineered mice and other small animal models, creating opportunities for breakthrough research in basic understandings of cancer, diabetes and brain disorders, along with other possibilities.

The imaging institute explores virtually every aspect of imaging science, from the underlying physics of imaging to applications of imaging techniques to detect, diagnose and treat disease.

The institute already houses seven powerful magnets including a 7 Tesla human scanner, one of only 13 in the world being used in human studies. Built in 2006, the building includes four floors of research, classroom and office space. Great care and planning went into every facet of the $19.7 million facility, including creating a mock MRI scanner so human research subjects can adjust to the feeling of lying prone in the cylindrical tube. The center also houses other advanced imaging devices, including a 3-T whole body scanner, X-ray, ultrasound, PET, optical and CT scanners.

The state-of-the-art center provides ready access to the latest equipment while facilitating constant communication among potential collaborators.

“We’re not a lab living in a bubble,” says Mark Does, associate professor of biomedical engineering. “(Interaction is) how we identify the relevant questions. We were built from day one for greater collaboration.”
Currently, 24 faculty members and 50 graduate students, mostly engineering majors, are associated with the institute. In addition to addressing questions brought by “visionaries,” institute faculty conduct their own research, much of it designed to improve imaging technologies and methods and to use them in new applications.

“We’ve got the hammer and we’re often looking around for the right nail,” says Adam Anderson, associate professor of biomedical engineering. “We rely on the rest of the university to bring us novel questions. We develop methods, and use them to provide new knowledge, but there are many physicians or educational researchers who study problems with which imaging can help. We rely on them to describe what they need.”
Among the research projects ongoing at VUIIS are studies furthering understanding of the human brain and how it functions, including asking why gray matter is gray and white matter is white, and building tools for understanding how the brain is organized. Other work involves better understanding blood flow in tumors, how the brain changes when a psychiatric disorder is present, and the impact of certain medicines on brain function.

“A lot of projects here draw heavily on engineering and the applied sciences to make them work,” Anderson says. “There are a lot of algorithms being developed to help the interpretation of information from different modalities.”

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