Scenarios for faster scanning
New technology allows for major steps to be taken in the speed and results of MRI scans. Which societal issues play a role in this new technology and its introduction in clinical practice? To answer this question, technological research is integrated with Responsible Innovation research. This is possible thanks to a grant from the HTSM MVI top-up call, in which two projects were recently awarded funding.
We talk with Responsible Innovation researcher Wouter Boon and HTSM project leader Alessandro Sbrizzi, who are working together in the recently awarded project.
The HTSM MVI top-up call gave the project leaders of the HTSM projects awarded funding in 2019 the opportunity to integrate their research with Responsible Innovation. ‘In my HTSM project, I am developing a technology called MR-STAT’, says mathematician Alessandro Sbrizzi from University Medical Center Utrecht. ‘With this technology, based on smart algorithms, we can improve MRI imaging to such an extent that you can make a complete MRI scan in five minutes. You currently need about twenty minutes on average for that. In addition, we can quantify the images – we then indicate the differences between tissue in numbers – which makes a more objective assessment of the scan possible.’
Over the past few years, Sbrizzi has developed the first version of this technology together with his colleague Nico van den Berg. ‘So far, we have mainly focused on brain scans. In the HTSM project, we also want to make our computer algorithms suitable for scans of other parts of the body. However, there are several technical challenges we will need to overcome. For example, one question is how we must deal with adipose tissue or with disruptions in the image due to unavoidable movements caused by breathing or digestion.’
Innovation scientist Wouter Boon from Utrecht University discovered Sbrizzi’s work in the list of HTSM projects awarded funding and was immediately intrigued by it. ‘Alessandro’s work elicits exciting questions concerning the future of medical imaging techniques and strongly touches upon the introduction of artificial intelligence in healthcare. There are Responsible Innovation questions associated with this.’ Two postdocs, one working in the group of Boon and the other in the group of Sbrizzi, are considering issues that could come into play with the implementation of this new MRI technology in clinical practice. If an MRI scan takes less time, you can see more patients per day. Yet, what does that mean for the workload and responsibilities of the radiologist who must assess the scans, or for the workflow in the hospital? What needs to be changed in the operational planning if the diagnostics start taking place far quicker? And how will the job of the radiologist change if the computer can indicate what can and cannot be seen on the scan?
‘One of the postdocs has a background in clinical technology, and the other has more of a background in Science and Technology studies. Through intensive collaboration, they can bridge the gap between the technical possibilities and the legal, ethical, societal and innovation management issues’, says Sbrizzi. ‘They talk with users’, says Boon, ‘and explore different scenarios to make this technology part of the professional’s everyday practice. They also itemise which ethical considerations are involved. We are very pleased that Ghislaine van Thiel, co-applicant and associate professor of medical ethics (University Medical Center Utrecht) is also taking part in the project.'
The heterogeneity of the group of users concerned is one of the aspects that makes this project so interesting for Boon. ‘In the innovation sciences, there is also a lot of attention for the role of users. However, in the literature, this is usually still a homogenous group. This is why we are investigating to what extent highly differing user wishes can be expressed in an innovation, because we do not have a good understanding of this yet. In this case, there are different types of patients, different types of medical specialists, health insurers and both university and peripheral hospitals.’ ‘For us, as technologists, it is interesting to investigate who in this group ultimately decides about whether or not such a new technology should be implemented and what such a decision is based on’, adds Sbrizzi.
Getting to know each other’s worlds
Both researchers think that the top-up project is perfectly timed. The four-and-a-half-year HTSM project started in the autumn of 2020, and the top-up project of three years will start after the summer. Sbrizzi: ‘I hope that we can get a better idea of the wishes and objections of those involved, and with that increase the chances of this innovation actually being implemented in practice.’ ‘Of course, I hope so too’, affirms Boon, ‘and I also hope that we can gain a better scientific understanding of which values are important for the use of new medical imaging techniques.’
‘The Responsible Innovation approach is new for me’, says Sbrizzi. ‘I hope that I can translate this approach to other technology and take this experience with me to other projects.’ ‘A collaboration like this one is also a social process’, Boon adds. ‘For us as innovation scientists, medical imaging is a relatively uncharted area. Getting to know each other’s worlds in this manner is an enriching experience.’
Besides this MVI top-up call for HTSM, there is also a similar programme for projects awarded funding within the Electrochemical Conversion and Materials programme. More about the proposals awarded funding can (soon) be found here.