Keith Muir is excited. As the Scottish Imaging Network: A Platform for Scientific Excellent (SINAPSE) chair of clinical imaging at the University of Glasgow, he’s about to get a brand new toy to play with – a seven Tesla magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner.
The 26-tonne device will generate a massive magnetic field measuring seven Tesla (7T) in strength, allowing medical researchers and clinicians to scan the human body in greater detail than ever before. “For my own specialism in stroke, the MRI scanner will allow us to produce detailed images of the damage caused by stroke and give us the capability of visualising the very small vessels responsible for many strokes,” Muir explains. “These devices are already being used for research into the brain. But so far we’ve only scratched the surface of what these pieces of equipment can do.”
While MRI scanners have become common in many hospitals, the new £7 million device will be the only one of its kind for human use in Scotland. Just three are operational in the UK – at Cardiff, Nottingham and Oxford – with Cambridge and London also due to install machines in the coming year.
Having a 7T scanner means Glasgow is joining an exclusive club – and the university is building a very special home for its new device. Construction work on the £16m Imaging Centre of Excellence (ICE) began in October 2015, with the topping out ceremony taking place in July 2016. The centre is connected to the new £1 billion Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) in Govan on the south side of the River Clyde in central Glasgow, the largest acute medical facility in Western Europe, which opened in 2015.
“What sets Glasgow’s 7T MRI scanner apart from those at other sites in the UK – and indeed internationally – is that it will be housed at a hospital,” says Muir. “Most other facilities can only handle patients who can walk into a university research building, but we’ll be able to bring patients in their beds from the hospital into the ICE building to use the scanner.”
Yet the ICE building is about much, much more than just housing the 7T device. The facility will bring together imaging specialists from a broad range of disciplines to work together on the same site.
“At the moment, we are all working in separate places and we are often faced with the same challenges when it comes to working out how to analyse images,” Muir says. “A problem that might take me months and months to figure out could be perfectly routine for someone else working in a different discipline – but I might not see that person until I bump into them at the next international conference.
“Bringing together researchers into the same building will help us to share our knowledge with each other. Hospitals are already used to radiologists crossing multiple specialist fields, so we’re extending that idea into medical research too.”
Once the scanner is up-and-running, the medical research being carried out on the device could eventually lead to new ways of diagnosing diseases, meaning that the machine will not only speed-up scientific research but will also directly help patients. The location of the ICE building at the QEUH is not only important for patients and researchers but also for the emerging field of personalised or stratified medicine. Personalised medicine will allow clinicians to look at each patient’s genes so that they can diagnose the specific form of disease affecting that individual and then prescribe a treatment or medicine that is tailored to work for their body.
The ICE building is being constructed next door to the £20m Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre (SMS-IC), a facility led by the University of Glasgow but with a Scotland-wide remit. The SMS-IC is bringing together the genome sequencing technology needed to analyse a person’s genes with the complex bio-informatics needed to handle the large amount of genic data and link it to the National Health Service’s (NHS’s) clinical data – this will allow patients to be categorised or stratified according to their genetic profiles.
While the medical and scientific benefits of the ICE building are clear to see, the centre also has a third role to play. The facility will not simply bring advantages for patients and researchers but will also act as an economic development tool. The construction of the centre has been supported not only by cash from the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) but also by £16m from the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) through the £1.13bn Glasgow City Region City Deal, which brings together the UK Government, the Scottish Government and the eight local councils across Glasgow and the Clyde Valley in the largest funding agreement of its kind in the UK.
The ICE is expected to create 400 jobs over the next ten years and bring nearly £88m of gross value added to the economy. As well as housing 40 clinical staff and 100 researchers, the centre also has space for a further 120 people working in industry.
Bringing together academics, businesspeople and clinicians is designed to stimulate collaboration between the three branches of the life sciences sector, which in turn will create further jobs. Researchers will be able to draw on the expertise of their industrial partners and vice-versa.
Muir and his team will be working with the companies that design and make the hardware and software for the 7T MRI scanners so that they can help to expand the machines’ range of services from the clinical research sphere into the diagnostic arena to help patients.
There will also be opportunities for digital technology companies to work together with the ICE to develop the software needed to handle the vast amounts of data being generated by the imaging equipment and the massive reams of patient data, which will need to be treated in an ethical and sensitive way.
Such partnership will bring together two of the most exciting areas of the Scottish economy – digital technology and life sciences. Working collaboratively isn’t just an opportunity for big companies though, with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) also having the chance to work with academics and clinicians. The size of the partners on the site will range from German industrial and technological giant Siemens – which is supplying the 7T scanner – all the way through to start-up and spin-out companies, some already attracted from overseas.
“An entire floor within the ICE building will be dedicated to working with industry,” explains Carol Clugston, chief operating officer at the College of Medical, Veterinary & Life Sciences (CMVLS) at the University of Glasgow. “The whole business case for ICE has been built around economic development and job creation.”
The industrial area within ICE will be managed alongside the university’s existing incubation facilities adjacent to the neighbouring SMS-IC. Small businesses will have the opportunity to rent flexible laboratory or office space in either building, depending on their needs and their specialities.
“The 20,000sq ft of industry space that we have here in ICE and adjacent to the SMS-IC is for companies that need to be within the hospital campus,” Clugston says. “But there’s land adjacent to the hospital site that is available and so we’re talking to property developers and land owners about what could be done there.
“There’s also still space within the campus site that the NHS might be open to using. There’s lots of potential for expansion. This isn’t just about what’s in the building but it’s the knock-on and indirect effects for other businesses and what may grow up around the ecosystem.”
Companies are already showing an interest in being located at the ICE building. “The coils that are used in the 7T scanner are not made by the MRI scanner manufacturers – they are developed and built by a components supplier,” explains Clugston. “We have just recruited one of the best coil engineers in the world, who has come from Germany and has been attracted by this site. He had multiple job offers from the United States but we attracted him to come here.
“That’s just one example of the benefits that this building will bring. These are new skills that are being brought to Scotland and to the UK that we’ve never had before. This is about attracting the right people to come to work in Scotland and be able to develop these new skills.
“What we’re trying to do is attract other companies like this to come to this new building. They might be directly related to the 7T or to other types of imaging or they might be related to precision medicine more broadly, because imaging is another aspect of precision medicine.
“So it’s about finding companies that want to make connections with us. We’ve got a lot of ongoing collaborations that have arisen because of ICE. Because we’re developing this critical mass and this reputation around what we’re doing, we’ve got a lot of companies that are speaking to us and are developing projects with us right now. It’s all because of the fact that we have this building.”