Start-up focuses on superconducting surface coils

April 11, 2006

Early in the history of MR technology, engineers looked into and then abandoned the development of superconducting surface coils. Now interest in this approach has come full circle with the Q-coil, a superconducting platform designed for high-field imaging.

Early in the history of MR technology, engineers looked into and then abandoned the development of superconducting surface coils. Now interest in this approach has come full circle with the Q-coil, a superconducting platform designed for high-field imaging.

Prototypes produced by Columbia University spin-off Supertron Technologies have begun human subject testing. The CEO of the Newark, NJ, company, C. Richard Hullihen, plans to begin commercializing the technology in 2007 through a mix of OEM and direct sales.

"We may end up doing some contract manufacturing for folks that have a very special need or interest, but other than that we see ourselves going directly to end users," said Hullihen, a 30-year-plus veteran of the imaging industry.

Surface coils cooled by liquid nitrogen have the potential to boost signal. Preliminary tests of the start-up's Q-Coil on a GE 0.2T Profile scanner increased image quality by 300% or reduced scan time by a factor of 600%. Use of the technology at Brigham and Women's Hospital delivered an image of the eye at 0.2T comparable to one achieved at 1.5T.

While low-field imaging proved the potential of this approach, this is not where the company is focusing its efforts. Prototypes now in testing are designed for 1.5T clinical applications and 3T animal studies.

The technology, developed at Columbia University, is covered by seven issued and five pending patents. State and federal grants funded early work, and ongoing development is being aided by a round of private financing closed late last year.

The financial viability of the technology increased with the recent change in direction toward 32-, 64-, and 128-channel coils, according to Hullihen. The development of these megachannel machines has made the use of supercooled surface coils attractive.

"These scanners are built for the use of very small field-of-view coils assembled into arrays, and that comes right back to what we are doing," he said. "The benefits suddenly become relevant."

As coil FOV shrinks, noise from the coil and the associated electronics becomes a dominant source of the overall signal-to-noise ratio, Hullihen said. Supercooling the technology addresses this problem.

"Noise drops as you cool the coil," he said.

First in line for commercialization is a head coil. Future coils will be designed to support emerging applications, according to Hullihen.

Their design must figure in the special needs that accompany superconducting technology - a vacuum and the circulation of liquid nitrogen around the coils. But the coils Hullihen has in mind will look and operate much like conventional surface coils.

"If a user has to do anything special, then we didn't finish the development task," he said. "We want to make how we do this invisible."