UU Innovation

The body’s inner workings studied with breakthrough imaging software

2016-05-21

A picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, and this applies not least in medical research and drug development. Scientists and doctors are now able to convert complex medical data from whole body scans into more informative and lucid images using new ‘Imiomics’ software technology developed by three researchers at Uppsala University. As well as improving our understanding of disease, this will eventually lead to earlier and more accurate diagnoses and make it easier to choose the right therapy and monitor treatment effects.

Whole body scanning is especially useful in disease states that affect the entire body, such as cancer and metabolic diseases like diabetes where all tissues can suffer. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) and computerised tomography (CT) are all technologies used in healthcare to depict the whole body. MRI, for example, is currently used to detect a range of diseases and conditions, e.g. cancer. The technology is safe and flexible and offers great potential, but its use has been limited in the past because manually managing and analysing the huge volume of images it generates is both difficult and time consuming. Combining PET and MRI technologies in an integrated PET / MRI scanner generates images that correspond anatomically and chronologically. It also facilitates the study and understanding of different processes in the body at the molecular level.

“Whole body scanning is a critical tool in research and medical care, but it has not been utilised to its fullest extent. The greatest challenge has been to manage and analyse all the image data generated. It has also been difficult to compare images from examinations carried out at different times. But now we have developed software that automatically manages and analyses all information found in images in a very proficient way”, says Joel Kullberg, Associate Professor and researcher at the Department of Surgical Sciences.

Commercialisation discussions ongoing

Together with colleagues Associate Professor Robin Strand and Professor Håkan Ahlström, Joel has developed the image analysis concept Imiomics. All three have worked hard to bring about the robust image processing technology now at their disposal. Its primary goal is use in healthcare, although it is currently almost exclusively employed in research. Nevertheless, patents are pending and discussions are underway with industry to develop the commercial aspects of the product.

“Our method is an automated, quantitative and objective means of analysing the entire body. All data are managed, even that not visible in the image. Millions of measurements from the entire body are analysed, which gives us a clearer overall picture of the disease as well as a better understanding of it. This is especially useful when developing new drugs and for monitoring the effects of drugs and treatments”, continues Joel Kullberg.

The information gathered makes it easier for healthcare professionals to detect, characterise and determine the spread of disease, and it facilitates selecting the best treatment for each individual patient. It also means that disease prognosis can be better predicted at the time of diagnosis. Evaluating the effect of both established and new treatments is a further expected benefit. Finally, the computerised methods developed to manage and analyse information provide new insights that would otherwise not be possible to achieve.

“In addition to information about the body’s composition, MRI images provide valuable data concerning blood flow, oxygen consumption, the concentration of certain molecules and the movement of water molecules. PET, which involves introducing a harmless radioactive substance into the body, is able to reflect the degree of perfusion, oxygen and glucose consumption, cell death, angiogenesis (the growth of blood vessels) and the concentration of receptors and enzymes in different organs, primarily the brain and heart”, says Joel. The technique is used primarily in cancer care.

Imiomics’ software can be installed directly in the scanners that collect images and analyses can be done for individual patients as well as large groups, for example, to analyse differences between diseased and healthy individuals.

“Besides facilitating diagnosis, the technology is needed to match developments on the drug front where treatments are increasingly individualised”, notes Joel Kullberg, who adds that it was a pretty challenging problem the three researchers faced. “We hesitated about whether or not we should tackle it. But now we have developed a technique that works well and we can certainly see that our product can bring about a real medical benefit”.

The team behind the image analysis concept Imiomics: Associate Professor Joel Kullberg, Professor Håkan Ahlström and Associate Professor Robin Strand.