By Sarath Peiris
With more than $700,000 in funding from two major Canadian granting agencies, University of Saskatchewan researcher Gordon Sarty is building new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology for use on space missions to monitor the health of astronauts.
Sarty, interim chair of biomedical engineering and head of the Department of Psychology, was awarded a $100,000 contract today by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to design and engineer an ankle-sized MRI device for the International Space Station (ISS).
Sarty and his team are designing a lightweight MRI that meets high safety standards required for space travel and will ultimately monitor the bone health of astronauts during prolonged space trips, where weightless conditions lead to the loss of bone mass.
The portable MRI will weigh about 30 kilograms, while the imaging behemoths patients encounter when undergoing a medical scan at a hospital can weigh 15 tonnes or so. The goal is to test an ankle MRI on astronauts aboard the ISS by the early 2020s.
After the ankle-size MRI, Sarty plans to build a helmet-sized MRI for possible use on a deep-space getaway station orbiting the moon and, far closer to home, in remote areas such as northern Saskatchewan where access to a portable MRI can save the lives of patients with potentially fatal head injuries.
“As a kid watching men walk on the moon, I was pretty sure that I would walk on the moon when I grew up,” recalls Sarty.
“As a grown-up, I worked as an engineer on space projects at SED Systems in Saskatoon. It was a dream job, but I returned to graduate school in part because I wanted my own project. This MRI work is that project. I may not make it to the moon, but my MRI will.”
The CSA earlier awarded him a grant of $500,000 to actually build an ankle MRI and test it on Earth using a steeply climbing and diving jet to create zero-gravity conditions. The requirements for such an experimental device aren’t as high as designing an MRI for use on the ISS.
As well, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) awarded Sarty a $105,000 Discovery Grant in 2016 to develop new MRI technology.
So far, a postdoctoral fellow, three PhD students, a master’s student and seven undergraduates have been involved in the portable MRI project.
Back in 2014, using CSA funding Sarty and his team designed a wrist-sized MRI that weighed about 50 kilograms. The space agency then asked about an ankle MRI, deeming it better suited for space experiments on bone health.
“We couldn’t do an ankle-size because the magnet design we had at that point would be too heavy,” said Sarty. “Since then we’ve been developing a new magnet technology that’s considerably lighter.”
The new technology doesn’t need a perfectly uniform magnetic field. This breakthrough allows for a design that uses cheaper and lighter magnets.
While the magnet in the original design for a wrist MRI would have cost about $1 million, Sarty and his team since have built a wrist MRI with a non-uniform magnet that used off-the-shelf components, weighs five kilograms and cost $5,000.
He’s working with Logi Vidarsson of LT Imaging of Toronto to now design and build a larger magnet for the ankle MRI. Three PhDs and a postdoctoral fellow will test the ankle MRI in spring 2019 under zero-gravity conditions aboard a jet that will make steep climbs and dives at altitudes between 10,000 and 20,000 feet.
“Eventually I’d like to see our technology move into emergency rooms,” Sarty said. “You already have CAT scans, ultrasound and X-ray that are at that level, but MRIs aren’t used in the ER yet.”
He also envisions eventually developing small MRIs for use in tandem with surgical robots to treat astronauts on long duration space travel—to Mars, for example—and for use on the moon and other places in the solar system.
But the first step in that long journey is to show that the technology works in zero-gravity, and then deliver preliminary engineering plans for the space station MRI to the CSA for review in January 2019.
For Sarty, it isn’t a far-fetched notion to be doing all this in Saskatoon.
For example, there’s work done at the Institute for Space and Atmospheric Studies (ISAS) to build and operate instruments for studying the upper atmosphere from satellite, high-altitude jet and balloon platforms, Sarty said. ISAS is also where projects involving radar networks such as SuperDARN are operated.
“Innovative training programs like CanNoRock, which allows students to launch rockets from Norway, and the NSERC CREATE Space Mission Training Program are both in full swing, not to mention the award-winning space elevator and rover designs that have come from the student-run U of S Space Design Team,” he said.
“We’ve always had this space-oriented research and activity in Saskatoon, and I’m proud to be part of that.”
In addition to Sarty’s two MRI-related projects, four other U of S researchers have a total of eight active projects funded by CSA.
Sarath Peiris is assistant director, research profile and impact.