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Instrumentarium returns Picker to reinvigorated low-field MRI niche


Picker International, an early leader in low-field MRI, will returnto that niche in a joint venture with Instrumentarium of Helsinki.Upon finalization of the agreement expected later this month,Picker will take over sales of Instrumentarium's 0.1-tesla

Picker International, an early leader in low-field MRI, will returnto that niche in a joint venture with Instrumentarium of Helsinki.Upon finalization of the agreement expected later this month,Picker will take over sales of Instrumentarium's 0.1-tesla Mega4 MRI system--renamed Merit--in markets outside of Finland. Instrumentariummay also continue selling systems in neighboring countries inScandinavia and the former Soviet Union, where the firm has marketstrength, according to Richard Hullihen, manager of business programsfor Picker's MR division in Cleveland.

Instrumentarium will gain a stronger market presence worldwidefor its MRI technology while focusing its own sales effort onmammography and other x-ray products. The two firms plan to forma new Finnish company, Picker Nordstar, which will take over allof Instrumentarium's MRI development program and personnel inHelsinki. Both sides were careful to characterize the ventureas one in low-cost--not necessarily low-field--MRI.

"This is for low-cost MR. Field strength is not the onlyfactor," said Folke Lindberg, president of InstrumentariumImaging in Milwaukee.

Any future systems will evolve from the Mega 4 technology base,Hullihen said. Merit will provide Picker with an MRI system thatsells for considerably less than $1 million, thereby meeting certificate-of-needlimitations in some U.S. states.

Originally a low-field manufacturer, Picker still has 0.15-teslasystems operating in clinical settings, most notably with Dr.Graeme Bydder of Hammersmith Hospital in London. Picker turnedits focus to mid- and high-field MRI systems over the last decadewhen vendors in the U.S., the largest of which is GE Medical Systems,threw their weight behind higher field technology.

Since that time, however, there have been considerable improvementsin image quality and applications at low fields. Pressure to reducehealth-care costs simultaneously increased demand in the low endof the market.

Hitachi has had the greatest success selling low-field MRIin the U.S. Among the largest vendors in this national market,only Siemens has officially launched a low-field system, calledthe P8, which was developed by its Japanese joint venture withAsahi. GE has indicated it is looking into the niche (SCAN 12/25/91).

"We need to serve that (low-field) market because peopleare buying equipment. The technology has come a long way in bothmagnets and electronics. The (Merit) magnet is far more uniformand stable than any of the systems originally introduced. It isa very sophisticated platform that happens to be attached to alow-field magnet right now," Hullihen told SCAN. "Ifyou look at the diffusion curves of MR in the marketplace, yousee that its price is constraining clinical adoption of the technology."

Picker will maintain its own separate development programsrelated to its 0.5-tesla Asset, 1-tesla Vista Q and 1.5-teslaEdge MRI systems, he said.

The MRI joint venture highlights a growing need among vendorsto cooperate in bringing expensive medical imaging technologyto market, said Instrumentarium's Lindberg.

"That is the reason for this whole transaction,"he told SCAN. "It (the MR joint venture) will provide uswith a strong market presence and nationwide coverage in thiscountry as well as distribution in several other market areas.At the same time, we will have more resources to focus on ourmammography and other x-ray products."

One reason Instrumentarium hasn't built up a large MRI basein the U.S. may be customer concerns over viability, somethingmost small and mid-sized MR vendors encounter. Tying the low-fieldsystem to Picker's established business in this field will allaythese concerns, Hullihen said.

"The size of this combination of two companies and salesand service presence will open people's minds to evaluating theproduct," he said.

Picker will also pick up a promising research relationshipwith Nycomed of Oslo in the development of a low-field MRI techniquecalled Overhauser MRI (OMRI). OMRI tailors a specialized contrastagent to the low-field imaging system (SCAN 2/13/91).

The OMRI project and Nycomed relationship will be maintainedthrough Picker Nordstar, Hullihen said. Over the long run, developmentof this concept fits well with Picker's strategic positioningas a major accessory and contrast distributor as well as an imagingsystem vendor, he said.

Picker Nordstar will also handle a second related product broughtover from Instrumentarium, the 122-channel Neuromag magnetoencephalography(MEG) system. While still an emerging technology, MEG or magneticsource imaging holds the prospect of providing information supplementalto MRI functional imaging at higher field strengths, Hullihensaid.

"MR has always been such a rich technology for clinicalinformation, with many different dimensions of information presented.Now (with MEG), there is an opportunity to superimpose electricalactivity. This opens all kinds of windows for evaluating functionalimaging," he said.

The two companies have not decided whether Neuromag will besold under the Picker label, he said. The system was developedin a joint venture with Helsinki-based Neuromag, using technologydeveloped at the University of Helsinki (SCAN 2/12/92).

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