Canadian start-up firm Millennium harnesses low-cost MRI technology

August 4, 1999

Company plans to begin selling Virgo this yearThe industry’s newest vendor of MRI scanners will have instant name recognition when its open scanner is released into the U.S., possibly later this year. The fledgling company is already a player

Company plans to begin selling Virgo this year

The industry’s newest vendor of MRI scanners will have instant name recognition when its open scanner is released into the U.S., possibly later this year. The fledgling company is already a player on the international stage.

Millennium Technology is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and has contracted to sell its Virgo MRI scanner to sites in Mexico, China, and Taiwan. One of the systems is operating at Vancouver General Hospital, which also houses the company. The firm’s 30-person full-time staff is bolstered by collaborators from Vancouver General and the nearby University of British Columbia.

The system represents the company’s first, and currently only, product and is designed to deliver the biggest bang for the buck. It is a model of simplicity—not advanced technology, according to its creator, Illich Cheng, Millennium president and CEO.

“We have streamlined—simplified—the system, instead of making it complicated,” Cheng said. “A lot of vendors are pushing the limit of their systems, but we have tried to make it diagnostic and cost-effective.”

Virgo can do virtually any standard examination, including MR angiography. Diffusion-weighted imaging is beyond its grasp at the moment, but Millennium staff are developing the capability. Virgo’s designers have purposely focused on capabilities that support accepted clinical protocols, rather than trying to push the limits of clinical capability. That could soon become a critical consideration.

“In the future, MRI scan costs will have to be much lower,” said Cheng, citing worldwide reimbursement pressure.

Virgo could get the per-scan cost to the user down to about $50, he said. At that cost, which does not include professional fees, a facility doing 10 scans per day could recover the price of Virgo in about five years.

The price of the system—under $800,000—is kept low by using off-the-shelf components whenever possible, Cheng notes. Many components come from Canada; others from the U.S. Materials for the magnet come mostly from China.

FDA clearance could be coming soon. The company submitted an application for Virgo to the agency about six months ago.

Millennium was started in 1995 with private funding and has been partly supported by Canadian government agencies. It has already passed muster with the Canadian Health Protection Branch and Canadian Safety Association. This Canadian approval opened the door for sales outside the U.S., because many Asian countries and Mexico follow a North American regulatory standard, Cheng said.

The company relies on distributors to sell and market Virgo. A distributor has not yet been signed for North America. The one chosen should be able to reach into small hospitals and especially private clinics, where Cheng believes a strong market will bloom in the next three or four years.

If the FDA gives Millennium the nod to market Virgo, the company hopes to sell this product to small hospitals and clinics as a primary MRI scanner or as a dedicated unit for orthopedic applications. Virgo might also be used as a secondary scanner at larger hospitals to handle patient overflow or be positioned for specialty use, as in the case of MRI-guided biopsy and intervention. The system’s C-shaped gap allows access to the patient from three sides, a style that is more open than most competing general-purpose systems.

Alternatively, the unit might be dedicated to emergency medicine. Located near the ER, Virgo might be applied as a quick means of assessing spinal cord trauma, Cheng said. Weight could be a limiting factor in siting the system, however, as permanent magnets are very heavy. The Virgo magnet weighs about 17 tons.

On the positive side, the permanent 0.35-tesla magnet requires no cryogens and consumes relatively little electrical power. It creates a vertical field, which produces field strength equivalent to that of a 0.7-tesla superconducting system. Quadrature coils offer improved signal-to-noise by leveraging this vertical field.

Gradients operate at 10 milliteslas per meter, with a rise time of 0.6 milliseconds, and a slew rate of 15 milliteslas per meter per second. Coils for the head, body, spine, extremities, shoulder, cervical spine, and temporomandibular joint will be available.

Millennium engineers have taken advantage of Sun Microsystems’ Java programming language to create powerful MRI software, Cheng said. And, because Java is transparent to any hardware or software platform, including Unix and Windows, the software built into Virgo should be compatible with PACS and teleradiology, especially with Internet and intranet Web servers.

“There will be no need to reconfigure it,” he said. “It will be just plug and play.”

Cheng believes the future will lead to integration across all modalities, with each one based on digital technology. They would be Java-compatible, he said. In this environment, Virgo software could act as a virtual machine, compatible with any network and any imaging system.

The future may also lead to a product line full of mini-Virgos. Cheng hopes to develop MRI systems dedicated to specific applications, such as mammography and brain scanning. Engineers are already working on a Virgo offspring dedicated to veterinary applications.

“Scale down the system and we can do a lot of things,” he said.