Upright Open MRI technology: Stand up for hip health research

Upright Open MRI technology: Stand up for hip health research

Tucked away behind heavy duty electromagnetic shielding in the basement of Vancouver General Hospital, a state-of-the-art machine is being used for promising new research on the causes of joint pain.

Called the Upright Open MRI, the machine allows a person to sit, squat or stand while being scanned using magnetic resonance imaging. Developed by Italian manufacturer Paramed Medical Systems, the machine captures how joints move and bear the weight of the body, an impossible task with typical MRI scanners, which has a patient lying motionless inside a tube.

“This machine tells us a lot more about people’s joints than normal MRI,” says biomedical engineer David Wilson, Professor in the Department of Orthopaedics and researcher at the  Centre for Hip Health and Mobility, a partnership between UBC and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute.

“With normal MRI all we get is a snapshot of the damage to the tissues in the joint. What this scanner lets us do is scan the joints in action so we can gain much greater insight into what’s causing the pain and tissue degeneration,” Dr. Wilson says.

Being able to capture joints in different positions is essential to Dr. Wilson and his team in their quest to learn more about joint pain. They’re particularly interested in studying hip osteoarthritis, a painful condition caused by the wear and tear of the hip joint. Since there is no cure for the condition, which affects up to 1 million Canadians, early prevention is key.

Dr. Wilson and his team are using the stand-up MRI scanner to follow a group of middle-aged people over the next five years to monitor their hip health.

“We want to learn more about people who are at risk before they get the disease,” Dr. Wilson explains. “We want to find out why some people have their joints degenerate very quickly, and why some have their joints degenerate slowly.”

Currently, the machine at VGH is the only one in the world solely used for research purposes. Scans from the machine can reveal rare views of virtually every part of the body from the lungs to the spine to the feet. Blood flow and liquids can also be captured, including the build-up of fluid around the joints.

While the scanner has the potential to be used clinically, especially for imaging the body in positions that cannot be captured in the confines of traditional MRI, more research is needed before standing up for a scan becomes the new normal.

Dr. Wilson’s team hopes to establish definitive guidelines and protocols doctors can follow to advise individual patients on the best treatment option for their pain, whether it be medication, physical therapy or hip replacement surgery.

“If we can learn more about the cause of joint pain by leveraging the unique capabilities of this machine, we’re in a much better position to design effective treatment and prevention strategies for osteoarthritis,” he says.