Innovative India-Made MRI Machine Can Make Medical Imaging Affordable And Accessible
A team led by Arjun Arunachalam has developed a lightweight, fast, affordable, and portable MRI scanner.
The machine can be transported to any location in India, including remote areas, and potentially take medical imaging to the underserved parts.
In Bengaluru’s industrial hub of Peenya, a healthcare innovation by a small company promises to make quality medical imaging – and, therefore, improved medical diagnosis and treatment – accessible to parts of India that are medically underserved.
The magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine developed by Voxelgrids Innovations Private Limited is entirely made in India and eases some of the primary challenges associated with widespread adoption of MRI – cost, size, and time.
It is a marked improvement on the typically costly, bulky, and noisy MRI machine that generally sits in radiology labs with little possibility of transport.
An MRI device is used to produce images of parts of the human body – soft tissues in particular. It does this mainly with the help of magnets, radio waves, and a computer. Common clinical applications of MRI revolve around photographing the brain, spine, abdomen, neck, chest, and extremities.
Using images from MRI, doctors are able to make a diagnosis that decides a patient's future course of treatment. For this reason, access to the device is important, so that diagnosis and treatment are available to people anywhere in the country – and not just in small pockets.
Currently, access to MRI devices is limited to a miniscule part of the population. Though data is hard to come by, less than one MRI machine is believed to be available per 10 lakh population in India. On the other hand, the average for member countries of the intergovernmental body Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is close to 15 by the same measure.
Naturally, a relatively simpler, more affordable, lightweight, and portable MRI scanner promises to take medical diagnosis to more people.
The Voxelgrids team is diverse and consists of radio-frequency, mechanical, and software engineers. The team is led by Arjun Arunachalam, who is the founder of the company and the system architect.
Arunachalam was born in Thiruvananthapuram, but moved to various cities growing up because his father was in the Indian Air Force. He studied electrical engineering in Chennai as an undergraduate student at the University of Madras before leaving for the United States to pursue his Masters and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees in the field.
After receiving his PhD degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Arunachalam took up a job at the General Electric (GE) Corporate Research and Development Center in New York. This happened to be the place where the world’s first 1.5 Tesla MRI scanner was built. It was also a micro melting pot of the various areas of MR technology under one roof.
“I got to meet the original pioneers of MR technology here,” Arunachalam tells me at the Voxelgrids facility in Peenya. “ It was very valuable for me to interact with them and understand what their thought processes were and how they would approach a problem.”
Arunachalam’s interest in MRI developed as a happy accident.
“I met a professor in Madison who was an electrical engineer from Stanford, but he was doing MRI (research). When he showed me some of the videos and images from MRI, I felt this is unique and different from what I’ve heard, at least within the Indian community, where at that point all the rage was related to whatever you’re seeing today in the tech sector,” he says.
He then made up his mind to work in MRI. Soon, he would return to India.
“I went with the motivation that eventually I want to come back to India and try and start something of my own,” he tells me.
He was “restless” on coming back and knew that he didn’t want to work in conventional roles within the industry. He, therefore, entered academia, joining as a faculty in the electrical engineering department at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. He worked there for about three years, spending most of his time teaching. Research, especially in MRI, was hard to do at this stage.
“When it comes to MRI research, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. You can’t start any research until you can put in a few tens of crores of rupees upfront,” he says. “People would say, ‘generate some results and then we will go and ask for money’. But to generate some results in MRI, you need a scanner and other necessary stuff.”
During this time, Arunachalam travelled occasionally to Thiruvananthapuram and visited Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences & Technology with the goal of collecting some data for research.
Subsequently, a move to Singapore with the family, thanks to an academic position taken up by his wife, left him with time on his hands and that was when he again began to pay close attention to MRI research.
He faced roadblocks in search of financial and technical support to pursue research and development in MRI technology, but eventually received the backing of Tata Trusts.
As a result, he returned to India.
“They (Tata Trusts) supported an idea on paper. They had supported a not-for-profit incubator called Social Alpha, through whom we received this support,” Arunachalam says.
Tata Trusts and Social Alpha invested crores of rupees into the project. A government grant of Rs 2.38 crore followed soon after.
Arunachalam says Ratan Tata stepped in to support the endeavour. As a result, the Trusts placed their first order with him. The order brought in advance money that in turn helped sustain the efforts.
“Without his (Tata’s) support, this would have never happened. I have not come across a more passionate and committed person in India than Mr Tata.”
The first prototype of the MRI machine – and the first set of images – came in 2018.
The work was accomplished by an engine room comprising hard-working and passionate individuals, most of them in their twenties and carrying no prior experience in the field.
“I hypothesised, and I’m happy that it’s come true, that you don’t need 25-30 years of expertise in the field to be able to make a disruptive contribution. Within the right environment, young people can learn and become far better than you,” says Arunachalam.
More funding came in, this time thanks to the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC).
In a year’s time, they had developed a 1.5 Tesla system that was affordable and could be deployed in remote areas. This was because they did away with the use of the typically expensive and hard-to-get liquid cryogenics in their device.
The MRI design was also such that electricity interruptions would hurt less – and it anyway consumed less electricity than conventional scanners. The machine was also more tolerant of changes in the environment, such as temperature.
Because of the technology tweaks, a medical scan is projected to cost 60 per cent less than with the conventional alternatives.
At that level of cost-effectiveness, it will be able to execute “the bread-and-butter imaging that everybody wants to do on a daily basis” – and do so faster than with regular MRI devices.
What’s more, all this has been accomplished in the spirit of aatmanirbharta (self-reliance) – a centre-stage theme in the nation’s psyche today – as it boasts of a home-made design.
The company has been rewarded with a BIRAC Innovator of the Year Award too.
“Today, we have been recommended for ISO 13485 certification. We are going to complete our worldwide safety regulation tests within a few weeks,” Arunachalam tells me. He has no hesitation in saying that Voxelgrids is the only successful home-grown MR company in India.
“In many ways, we are unique even in the world because we have various facets of the technology all in-house. We develop the software, we build the spectrometre, which is the custom electronics for that software to be able to generate the signals to image, we build the RF antennas, we develop the cryogenics – all of it under one roof with a team of 14,” he says.
Now, Voxelgrids is in a position to deploy their MRI machines. However, they are still not out of the woods.
“There is a genuine issue for us with funding. If you look at the conventional venture-capital funding, they are very clear – ‘we want to see a 100 million dollar business in three years’. This is not how medical devices industries work,” he says.
Despite this challenge, if planned pilot projects and research collaborations materialise, and if the MRI scanner works as intended in real-world environments, then commercial sales and revenue generation shouldn’t be far off.
For now though, the innovation deserves plaudits for what it can make possible – improved medical diagnosis for patients in even rural and underserved parts of the country.
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