Imaging comes of age in biomedical research, interdisciplinary teams

May 19, 2008

Radiologists must develop strategies for participating in the new age of imaging-based research. They need to join interdisciplinary teams, develop core imaging facilities for host institutions, involve themselves in small-animal imaging facilities, enter clinical research programs, and learn about PET and molecular imaging, which are at the core of pharmaceutical development.

Radiologists must develop strategies for participating in the new age of imaging-based research. They need to join interdisciplinary teams, develop core imaging facilities for host institutions, involve themselves in small-animal imaging facilities, enter clinical research programs, and learn about PET and molecular imaging, which are at the core of pharmaceutical development.

This was the advice of Prof. James H. Thrall, radiologist-in-chief at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, in the Josef Lissner honorary lecture at the European Congress of Radiology.

He thinks imaging will continue to become more important in basic bioscience and clinical research because of its added value. Also, far more funding will be directed at basic science applications of imaging and imaging biomarkers in clinical trials than on the development of new imaging methods.

On the other hand, Thrall anticipates more turf battles in both basic and clinical research. To ensure radiologists do not lose out, he urges them to continue to develop new methods that others need but at the same time recognize that they cannot control every aspect of imaging.

"In the first 100 years of our discipline, few medical scientists outside of radiology used medical imaging methods in their research," he said. "Medical imaging was tightly held by radiologists and a few other specialists. I regard the 1990s as the watershed era of transformation and expansion of progress."

This new phase was created by three broad-based advances: the development of practical digital methods for acquiring, storing, and analyzing images; the invention of new MRI-based functional imaging methods; and the explosion of new approaches to molecular imaging.

Thrall noted that this progress was illustrated in an editorial last year by Dr. Richard Ehman of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota (Blueprint for imaging in biomedical research. Radiology 2007;244:12-27). He drew ECR delegates' attention to the following sentence: "Improved spatial and temporal resolution, coupled with new methods, including functional and molecular imaging, enable inference at the level of genes, cells, and organ systems, making imaging methods invaluable as tools in basic biomedical research."

Imaging now occupies an important position in the pantheon of research methods, and scientists from every biomedical discipline use imaging methods as probes of biological systems and structures, he said. More imaging scientists and bioscientists are working in interdisciplinary teams. Also, imaging methods are transforming entire disciplines, such as the cognitive neurosciences, and are contributing to advances in systems biology and genomics.

-By Philip Ward