Getting an MRI isn't a pleasant experience. You enter a cold, claustrophobic tunnel only to be bombarded by the loud sounds of the machine doing its work. For adults, it's nerve-wracking. For premature or sick babies, it can even be dangerous. The long preparation and scanning process can send their fragile systems into distress.
Aspect Imaging, in partnership with the design consultancy Frog, has created a new MRI machine designed with newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of hospitals in mind. Because the system can safely be placed inside the NICU, the new machine dramatically decreases the time and preparation involved in a typical MRI.
"It's baby-centered design," says James Luther, a designer at frog who was the creative director for Aspect Imaging's Embrace Neonatal MRI. "We got to be the advocate of the newborn in this case. They don’t have much of a voice."
MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, is a non-invasive test that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to capture images of organs and all internal body structures. It's a standard tool used in hospitals across the country and is particularly useful in diagnosing problems for both adults and newborns.
MRI systems are typically located in the basements of hospitals, Luther explained, because the location is better suited to the MRI's immense weight. Because they're so big and attract anything with metal, hospitals often have to build safety shields around them and put them in a structurally isolated area. This can be a problem for newborns in fragile conditions, whom nurses and doctors try to handle as little as possible. Just the preparation for the MRI can be dangerous.
"You have this problem of really wanting to get images of how their brain or lungs are developing, but the trip to do that is very dangerous for them," Luther says. Using current MRI systems, the process to prepare newborns for the machine can take over two hours because all their tubing must be changed to remove any metal or extended so it can reach the MRI control room. Then, the journey down to the radiology department starts. "It’s quite a challenge to take these fragile babies down into this environment. We followed them through this, we were there when emergencies would happen and they’d stop breathing, when fluid would be filling their lungs. You’d see firsthand these really emotional and tough situations that they’re going through," he says.
Aspect Imaging's MRI contains a completely shielded permanent magnet, which means it doesn't need a traditional safety zone and can reside near other hospital equipment. It's much smaller than traditional MRIs because its built specifically for newborns (the company also has other dedicated MRIs, for wrists and heads), and is a fraction of the cost.
Frog stepped in to design a machine that would make the best use of the technology. While scientists at the University of Cincinnati converted an MRI for imaging adults' knees into a scanner for infants in 2013, and Stanford doctors pioneered a pediatric MRI system in 2014, there is no other mass-produced medical device designed specifically for sick or premature infants.
The team conducted extensive research that involved shadowing staff in the NICUs at hospitals in four countries and speaking with nurses, neonatologists, radiologists, technicians, and hospital administrators. Then they built a model of a NICU, complete with incubators and respirators, in their office, which led to a prototype. "We created the basic architecture and the idea, which was to bring a mobile incubator, which we’re calling the cart, to the bedside of the infant," Luther says. "You only touch the infant once into the cart, and once back into their home base, providing a safe environment for them throughout." The cart then slides right into the MRI, which is conveniently located in the NICU. The MRI system is projected to cut prep and scan time down to less than an hour.
Clinical trials will start after the first working prototype is installed in a hospital in Israel in September, and the MRI system will be available for installation in U.S. hospitals pending FDA approval.
[Photos: © 2016 frog design inc.]