The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Men behind the MRI honoured by Nobel
- ‘it was basically an idea’

Two scientists who played a key role in developing modern hospital scanners won the 2003 Nobel prize for medicine on Monday.

American Paul Lauterbur and Britain’s Sir Peter Mansfield were recognised for their discoveries on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a painless diagnostic method used by doctors to look inside the bodies of millions of patients every year.

“They have made seminal discoveries concerning the use of magnetic resonance... which represents a breakthrough in medical diagnostics and research,” the Nobel Assembly of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute university hospital said in its citation for the prize — worth $1.3 million. Lauterbur’s and Mansfield’s discoveries led to the development of modern MRI, which yields three-dimensional images of organs inside the human body. The now-routine technique makes it possible to see the extent of a tumour, localise an inflammation in the nervous system, or even see a beating heart.

MRI has helped replace invasive examinations and reduced risk and discomfort for millions of people going through medical tests ahead of surgery. It is valuable in imaging the brain and spinal cord, and has been extremely helpful in treating people with multiple sclerosis, cancer or Parkinson's disease. Lauterbur, 74, reached at his home in Urbana, in central Illinois before dawn said: “Everything they say about this sort of interference in your life is true, but it’s wonderful.”

A professor and director of the Biomedical Magnetic Resonance Laboratory at the University of Illinois, College of Medicine at Urbana-Champaign, Lauterbur said he was surprised to win the award. “One can hear speculation over the years, but the actual event is always a surprise,” he said.

“It was basically an idea, but once one has an idea, the many possibilities become apparent, and so, it seized hold of me for about a quarter of a century,” he added.

The laureates’ innovations are based on the discovery of the magnetic resonance phenomenon, or how atomic nuclei rotate in a magnetic field, 30 years earlier. Felix Bloch and Edward Mills Purcell won the Nobel physics prize on this finding in 1952.

Until Lauterbur’s and Mansfield’s studies in the early 1970s — which lead to practical applications a decade later — magnetic resonance was used mainly for studying the chemical structure of substances. Lauterbur found a way to create two-dimensional pictures by introducing radients in the magnetic field and build pictures of structures that could not be visualised with other methods.

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