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An MRI helmet out of ‘Back to the Future’ wins STAT Summit research pick

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The pitches are as ambitious as they are exciting: a gel to rub onto your teeth to fight gum disease, sparing patients trips to the dentist for painful cleanings. A way to trick immunotherapy-resistant solid tumors into being less resistant to the treatment. Or a simple, fashionable way to get faster, clearer MRI images. 

Those futuristic ideas were front and center at the STAT Breakthrough Summit in San Francisco on Wednesday, where entrants in the annual STAT Madness competition — a bracket-style competition to find the best innovation in science and medicine —  presented their scientific research. 

The Summit Pick, the tournament’s equivalent of a fan favorite, went to Xin Zhang, a distinguished professor of engineering at Boston University who presented her group’s 3D-printed helmet that makes magnetic resonance imaging, “crisper, faster, cheaper, and safer.”

“If I told you the MRI revolution was coming, you probably wouldn’t expect it would come dressed like this,” Zhang told the room. The device, which she compared to something out of Doc Brown’s lab in “Back to the Future,” is made of bright, colorful plastic and copper wire, and expands to fit over a patient’s head, or even a breast, ankle, knee, or other body part as they receive an MRI.  

MRIs are costly and typically take a long time. They also aren’t easily accessible in many areas — all issues Zhang hopes to address with the new low-cost device. The device, made of metamaterial resonators, boosts low-energy emissions from the patient’s body 15 to 20 times that of a standard MRI.  This will help make MRIs faster and help them produce higher-quality images, Zhang said.

Xin Li, a professor of molecular pathobiology at New York University who led this year’s winning STAT Madness team, also presented research on her group’s innovative dental gel to address gum disease. 

Nearly half of adults are affected by gum disease. When that develops into periodontitis, the best treatment is a deep cleaning that is so painful, Li said, that even with anesthesia, dentists can only address one side of the mouth at a time. The gel that she and her team developed uses a novel approach to preventing damage like bone loss. In research on mice, she and her team found that blocking a specific receptor in the mouth for a substance called succinate suppressed inflammation, prevented bone loss, and even changed the makeup of the bacteria found in the mouth.

“Anything that would eliminate dental office visits is really a winner to me,” said STAT co-founder and executive editor Rick Berke, who was part of a judges’ panel that asked each presenter questions about their research.

Betty Kim, a physician and professor of neurosurgery at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, presented on her team’s research on fighting immunotherapy-resistant tumors. Blood cancer cells have a receptor molecule that Kim identified as an “eat me” signal because it activates the body’s immune cells to fight those cancer cells. Kim’s team figured out how to dress up certain breast cancer cells that aren’t usually receptive to immunotherapy in these “eat me” receptors, which then attracted and activated the cancer treatment.

The research was done in animals, and Kim noted that toxicity studies are needed to ensure the treatment is completely safe. Other barriers might be “money, funding” she said with a wink.  Still, she believes that it will be practically available within five years.  “I think that’s realistic,” she said.

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Schedule16 Apr 2024