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Ohio State Engineers, Doctors Invent New MRI Technology

While working on bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, Eric Foster, with a team of other engineers and doctors, built a prototype MRI stress testing system with a compatible treadmill to better evaluate heart patients.

Eric Foster’s studies in mechanical engineering at Ohio State led to his participation in the invention of new MRI technology — and a partnership in the company formed to sell it.

As a graduate student, Foster worked on a team with Dr. Orlando Simonetti, associate professor of internal medicine and radiology at Ohio State's Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital; cardiologist Dr. Subha Raman; and John Arnold, professor of engineering, to create a preliminary version of a treadmill that won’t be affected by the magnet of a magnetic resonance imaging machine.

Foster, who earned his bachelor’s degree in 2006, was first introduced to the idea of creating an MRI-compatible treadmill during an undergraduate senior design class. Conducting research in Simonetti’s Cardiac MRI Research lab, he developed a “semi-compatible” treadmill to test the concept of exercise stress MRI. He assembled the team and developed a fully MRI-compatible prototype treadmill for his thesis, completing his master’s program in winter 2009.

Now he works part time as a research assistant on campus and part time for EXCMR Ltd., the Ohio State spinoff company that is further developing the technology.

“The whole point of it is that you cannot run an electric motor or have any components that would be attracted to a magnet inside an MRI room,” says Foster. “The MRI machine is essentially a huge magnet, so a traditional treadmill cannot be placed in the MRI room.”

However, having the treadmill next to the MRI machine helps doctors detect heart problems that develop under physical stress. The patient runs on a treadmill until a peak heart rate is reached. The heart is then imaged at peak stress using either ultrasound or nuclear imaging, both of which produce relatively poor image quality. The new method developed by EXCMR’s members seeks to replicate this procedure using the superior image quality of MRI. But the treadmill needs to be located immediately next to the MRI machine to prevent heart rate decrease that occurs between the exercise and imaging and reduces the stress-induced abnormalities the doctors are examining.

To do this, Foster and his team replaced magnetic components of a treadmill with non-magnetic aluminum and stainless steel parts and developed water-hydraulic drive and elevation systems. Then they placed a hydraulic power pack outside the MRI room. An electric motor pumps the water via hoses into the room, where they connect to a non-magnetic hydraulic motor and cylinder that run the treadmill. The system also required improvements in imaging, patient monitoring and software.

This fall the National Institutes of Health granted $370,000 to the company, which also has funding from TechColumbus and the Global Cardiovascular Innovation Center. Previously, a second-place win in the 2008 Fisher College of Business Deloitte Business Plan Competition garnered the team money toward legal, accounting, design and business development.

“By December we hope to be evaluating this in patients,” Foster says, adding that he expects it to be fine-tuned and ready for marketing commercially within two or three years.

As chief operating officer and lead engineer at EXCMR, Foster is refining the prototype and learning the business development aspects.

“Regardless of what level of success the company reaches,” Foster says, “it’s been a great experience that has allowed me to develop numerous skills I will be able to carry with me in the future.”