For centuries, humans have looked for signs of diseased tissue and organs by tapping the outside of the body to measure stiffness. Obviously such a method is only so effective, especially when trying to evaluate someone's liver, say, or heart. And more modern biopsies, while highly effective, are invasive procedures that involve removing tissue for examination.
Since 2007, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., have been working with magnetic resonance elastography (MRE), a medical imaging technique developed to non-invasively diagnose and monitor disease.
The device they use, MR-Touch, uses low-frequency sound waves for just 15 seconds at the tail end of a typical MRI procedure to measure tissue elasticity. It is essentially touching the tissue through vibration instead of surgery.
"Abnormal tissue stiffness can actually be a cause of some disease processes," Richard L. Ehman, professor of radiology who heads up the team that developed MRE at the Mayo Clinic, said in a GE statement:
Many regions of the body are not accessible to palpation, and conventional diagnostic imaging technologies do not allow physicians to assess tissue stiffness. The introduction of MR elastography...is an important milestone. It will also allow physicians around the world to explore new applications of this unique diagnostic imaging technology.
Recently cleared by the Federal Drug Administration, the MR-Touch has been licensed to GE Healthcare, which announced the device for commercial use at the 2009 meeting of the Radiologic Society of North America in Chicago this week.
MRE has been mostly used at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose liver disease because the disease is so widespread and, if detected in time, the resulting scarring (fibrosis of the liver) can be treated before the tissue becomes so stiff that it leads to cirrhosis, which is irreversible and requires a transplant for the patient to survive.
Also, because MRE provides a complete view of the liver, as opposed to smaller, individual samples, clinicians can better monitor disease progression and provide more informed preventative guidance. And, of course, the non-invasive approach is more comfortable and less risky than traditional biopsies.
This virtual palpation technology might even allow for the early detection of liver cancer, Eham says, not to mention monitoring the heart and brain, organs that have required major surgery to reach.