June 9, 2009

Cornell to buy MRI scanner for cutting-edge research in behavioral and life sciences

Cornell will purchase its own 3 tesla magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine for the Ithaca campus with a $2 million federal grant. The medical imaging device, which should be up and running by fall 2011, will allow researchers to delve into new areas, ranging from the biological processes that influence decision-making to prescription drug delivery and tissue engineering.

The technology will be used for many biomedical and neuroscience research activities linking Cornell's Life Sciences Initiative with behavioral science research, said Robert Buhrman, vice provost for research.

"The Cornell MRI facility will bring together researchers from at least four colleges who are working at the interface of biomedical, neuroscience and behavioral science research," he said. "This new, state-of-the-art laboratory is also critical in helping with the recruitment and retention of top-tier research faculty, postdoctoral scientists, undergraduate and graduate students, and technical support."

Currently, Cornell researchers travel to Rochester, Pittsburgh and New York City for magnetic resonance imaging. Of the top 30 institutions that receive National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, Cornell is the only one without an MRI machine on its central campus. Yet across campus, there are 22 NIH-funded projects that make substantial use of MRI and 20 pending NIH grant proposals that would make use of the new technology.

The project is a joint venture of the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Human Ecology and Veterinary Medicine. The machine, however, will be housed in a 7,300-square-foot lab space on the ground floor of Martha Van Rensselaer Hall. Construction on the lab space -- part of an overall renovation of Martha Van Rensselaer Hall -- is scheduled to begin next year. Cornell has submitted a proposal for an additional $3 million federal grant for facility renovations to accommodate the equipment. An additional $800,000 in funding will come from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the four colleges involved and the newly formed Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering.

MRI uses a powerful magnetic field that provides vital physiological information about tissues in the body without requiring tissue samples. It can be used to capture images of anatomy -- such as a torn ligament or plaque inside an artery -- or provide a snapshot of how tissues -- such as brain tissue -- are functioning, said Yi Wang, professor of radiology and the principal investigator on the grant proposal. Wang has a joint appointment at Weill Cornell Medical School and the College of Engineering.

Wang works to identify new methods for diagnosing cardiovascular disease and such neurodegenerative diseases as Alzheimer's using MRI.

"MRI can offer many different ways to map tissue," he explained. "You can look at water density, movements and interactions in cells, the magnetic properties of tissues, and the blood supplies and oxygen consumption of organs."

Faculty members in human development in the College of Human Ecology are building new programming in developmental behavioral neuroscience. They will use the MRI to create a map of human brain function and then use that map to peer into the biological mechanisms behind human behavior.

"This technology is going to allow us to link biomedical research with work in the social sciences to lead to a more complete understanding of the human experience," said Alan Mathios, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology.

The Cornell Nanobiotechnology Center uses MRI in molecular and cellular imaging investigations. And researchers in the Department of Biomedical Engineering focus on drug delivery and tissue engineering that require MRI for studies in live animals and humans.

The new MRI scanner will be able to image the whole body, from mice to humans, including brain functional imaging, cardiovascular imaging and cancer characterization in various organs. It will also provide adequate anatomic and functional imaging of rodents for a wide range of biomedical studies.

"The technology permits simultaneous imaging of many mice using any array of coils, enabling effective comparison studies for biomedical investigations," explained Robert Gilmour, associate dean for research and graduate education at the Vet College.

This capability will be particularly useful for veterinary faculty members who study developmental defects in mouse models and the growth of ovarian and lung cancer tumors, Gilmour said. In addition, MRI can provide detailed anatomical data on brain and heart structure, which are useful for investigators who wish to target specific regions of the brain for altered gene expression or track the fate of stem cells injected into areas of myocardial infarction.

Sheri Hall is assistant director of communications at the College of Human Ecology.