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Cardiac MRIs in a heartbeat

Project aimed at bringing hourlong procedure to under five minutes wins Haberecht Wildhare-Idea Research Grant

Haberecht Wildhare-Idea Award 2024
Qing Zou, Ph.D., has won the 2024 Haberecht Wildhare-Idea Research Grant for his project aimed at reducing cardiac MRI time resulting in a scan – such as the one above – from an hour to minutes. The award funds ideas considered too speculative to be supported by traditional sources.

Reducing the time for cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) from an hour to under five minutes might seem like a harebrained idea – but as the newest project funded by a Haberecht Wildhare-Idea Research Grant, this concept will move closer to reality. The 2024 recipient of this award is Qing Zou, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Radiology, and in the Advanced Imaging Research Center.

The UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences selects up to two winners each year to receive this $30,000 grant to pursue “wild hare” ideas considered too speculative to be funded by traditional sources. It was founded by and honors the life and legacy of Dr. Rolf Haberecht, a Southwestern Medical Foundation Trustee and longtime supporter of UT Southwestern.

“Most people would think that bringing an hourlong exam down to five minutes is impossible. But this grant will help us prove that it can be done.”

The medical imaging technique known as MRI provides detailed images of nearly any anatomical structure. But the heart, in particular, takes a much longer time for an MRI scan, Dr. Zou explained. Patients must lie in a typically enclosed scanner for an hour or more to acquire all the necessary data – sometimes a tough challenge for young pediatric patients who may lack patience, older patients who might find the platform uncomfortable or claustrophobia-inducing, or trauma patients unable to wait an hour for urgent treatment.

Qing Zou, Ph.D.
Dr. Zou’s project intends to shorten scans by combining magnetic resonance physics with artificial intelligence technology.

One reason for these long scans is the heart’s constant beating motion, which necessitates data capture during just one phase of the heartbeat cycle. Additional movement from breathing requires several breath-holds of up to 20 seconds each, often increasing patients’ discomfort. In addition, cardiac exams typically involve several studies performed sequentially to gather different types of information – such as determining the heart’s pumping ability, checking for possible scarring of the heart muscle, or assessing the anatomy of the heart in three dimensions. Each evaluation takes 20 minutes or more.

These prolonged scans could potentially be shortened by combining magnetic resonance physics with artificial intelligence (AI) technology, a concept conceived by Dr. Zou. While earning his undergraduate degree at Yangzhou University in Jiangsu, China, and his graduate degrees at the University of Iowa, Dr. Zou studied applied mathematics and computational sciences, and did his postdoctoral training in cardiac MRI. There, he researched how to obtain faster and better images with MRI – a task that requires developing complex mathematical algorithms for MRI processing and techniques for data acquisition. When he joined the UTSW faculty in December 2022, he continued this work as the Principal Investigator of the CardioPulmonary Imaging Lab.

Dr. Zou plans to use the Haberecht Grant to develop new algorithms and techniques that can gather data for the different types of cardiac MRI evaluations all at once in a compressed time period, merging separate and sequential exams into a single event that takes place in less than a minute.

Because this much quicker scan will collect significantly less data than a traditional cardiac MRI, AI will fill in the gaps, a process known as reconstruction, he explained. This new method will also decrease the amount and length of necessary breath holding. Including preparations for patients and MRI staff, Dr. Zou said, the total time for this new type of cardiac MRI will take an estimated five minutes.

The grant will enable him to test his idea in 40 volunteers, research that would be impossible to perform without significant funding.

“Without the Haberecht Wildhare-Idea Research Grant, we could never do this study because this idea is so unbelievable. Most people would think that bringing an hourlong exam down to five minutes is impossible. But this grant will help us prove that it can be done,” Dr. Zou said.

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