Press release | 9.6.2016
Lisbon/Munich, 9 June 2016 - Doctors have been waiting for an imaging method that can detect body tissues in real time at high resolution. This method is now on its way to becoming reality: Bernhard Gleich (46) and Jürgen Weizenecker (48) pioneered magnetic particle imaging (MPI), a new approach delivering high-resolution images via a magnetic field. For this accomplishment, the European Patent Office (EPO) honoured the two German physicists and their team with the European Inventor Award in the "Industry" category, one of five award categories, at a ceremony held today in Lisbon.
"With their high level of expertise in magnetic phenomena, Gleich and Weizenecker have laid the foundation for an entirely new class of medical imaging with far-reaching applications for doctors and researchers," said EPO President Benoît Battistelli.
The award ceremony at Lisbon's MEO Arena was attended by some 600 prominent guests from the areas of politics, business, intellectual property and science, and opened by the EPO President, Portugal's Prime Minister António Costa and European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas.
Now in its 11th year, the award is presented annually by the EPO to distinguish outstanding inventors from Europe and around the world who have made an exceptional contribution to social development, technological progress and economic growth. The winners were chosen by an independent international jury out of nearly 400 individuals and teams of inventors put forward for this year's award.
Until now, tissues in the human body have proven difficult to map precisely. What is more, imaging technologies such as X-rays and CT scans expose patients to ionising radiation. As a solution, Gleich and Weizenecker drew on their expertise in magnetic fields when they met in the laboratory of Philips Research Hamburg in 2000. They found that the key to mapping the human body consisted of the interaction between a controlled magnetic field on the outside and a magnetic counterpart inside the human body. Since this counterpart needed to be non-toxic and biologically tolerable, the two physicists zeroed in on one of mankind's oldest known chemical elements: iron, in the shape of miniscule particles.
The ingenuity of Gleich and Weizenecker's approach lies in its elegant use of magnetic forces: Before examination, patients ingest a liquid containing miniscule "superparamagnetic" iron oxide nanoparticles (SPIONs) that are smaller than the cell walls of many bacteria. These magnetic particles are then rendered detectable by applying an oscillating magnetic field - known as a drive field - while computer software translates the concentration of magnetised SPIONs into three-dimensional images. "We can calculate the magnetic particle concentration with high precision and transform that particle concentration into an image, and then produce 3D real-time videos," explained Weizenecker. Once the examination is complete, the particles are safely processed by the body's metabolism.
In the near future, MPI may deliver instant images of potentially life-threatening complications, such as arterial blockages or myocardial ischemia - significantly improving treatment outcomes in situations where every second counts. The first pre-clinical MPI scanner was installed at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) in 2014. Meanwhile, the two researchers continue to advance the technology in senior research positions: Gleich at the University of Lübeck and Weizenecker at the University of Applied Sciences in Karlsruhe. Potential applications for MPI hold the promise to disrupt the world market for pre-clinical imaging, expected to reach EUR 731 million globally by 2019.
"Inventors always search for the new and unexplored," says Gleich. "For my part I'm looking for new ways to look. The telescope made the far near, microscope the small big and X-rays the inaccessible clear before our eyes. MRI provided new insight into the human body, but sometimes it is slow and it is not suitable for everything. So it was time for a new invention."
Short video about the inventors (YouTube)
Note to editors: availability of AV and photo materials on 9 June 2016
Contacts at the EPO in Munich, Germany
Director External Communication