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October 13, 2003
Volume 81, Number 41
CENEAR 81 41 p. 12
ISSN 0009-2347


Chemist and physicist honored for developing powerful diagnostic tool


The 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to chemist Paul C. Lauterbur, 74, of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and physicist Sir Peter Mansfield, 70, of the University of Nottingham, in England, for their contributions to the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
“[MRI] is one of the few things that have happened in the last 50 years that has had an incredible and immediate impact on the lay public,” says Russell E. Jacobs, a researcher at California Institute of Technology’s Biological Imaging Center. In 2002, more than 60 million MRI procedures were performed.

“Before we had MRI, we were very limited in our ability to see differences within the soft tissues,” says John C. Gore, director of the Institute of Imaging Science at Vanderbilt University. “X-rays are very good at looking at bones, and nuclear medicine can look at certain types of function, but MRI is the method that is unique in its ability to see changes in the soft tissue of the body.”

The choice of the two Nobel Laureates has ignited a controversy, however. A full-page ad paid for by Fonar Corp. appeared in the Washington Post, on Oct. 9, three days after this year’s prize was announced, calling it “the shameful wrong that must be righted.” Fonar was founded by Raymond Damadian, who is considered by some to be the original inventor of MRI. In 1970, Damadian discovered that normal and cancerous tissues have markedly different relaxation times in their MR signals. That finding, which was published more than 30 years ago [Science, 171, 1151 (1971)], formed the basis for subsequent work on MRI.

According to Fonar Communications Director Daniel Culver, the company was “stunned” that the Nobel Prize was awarded for MRI without recognizing Damadian’s discovery. Damadian received the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001 and the National Medal of Technology in 1988 (with Lauterbur), and he was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 1989 for his role in the invention of MRI.

Hans Jornvall, secretary of the Nobel Prize selection committee at the Karolinska Institute, tells C&EN that the committee never comments on people not selected for the prize.

Lauterbur and Mansfield helped turn MRI into a practical technique. In the early 1970s, Lauterbur, then a professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, realized that two-dimensional images could be generated by introducing gradients into the magnetic field, so that different tissues are exposed to different magnetic field strengths. Working separately, Mansfield advanced the field by showing how the signals could be mathematically analyzed and transformed into an image. In addition, Mansfield showed how rapid imaging could be achieved by using fast gradient variations.

MRI quickly found its way into clinical use. Commercial systems were available by the early 1980s.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

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