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  On July 3, 1977, a historic event took place: The first magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam on a live human patient was performed. It was a technology that was a long time in the making, with the first scans taking place as early as the 1930s. These days, this minimally invasive diagnostic tool is more in demand than ever. This is especially true considering the rise in chronic diseases, the growth of the geriatric population, and an increasing number of hospital and diagnostic centers.   MRIs give doctors more information for diagnosis than ever before and notably, make early cancer diagnosis more possible and commonplace.  Here’s what investors should know about the MRI market. 

What Is MRI Technology? 

An MRI is a “non-invasive imaging technology that produces three dimensional detailed anatomical images.” The images that it produces allow doctors to identify tumors, fractures, and other anatomical anomalies.  MRIs can do a multitude of things. When they image the head and neck, they can detect brain tumors, traumatic brain injury, developmental anomalies, multiple sclerosis, stroke, dementia, infection, and more. When they image arteries and veins, they can detect aneurysms, blockages of the blood vessels, carotid artery disease, and arteriovenous malformations.  When they image the spine, they can detect herniated discs, pinched nerves, spinal tumors, spinal cord compression, and fractures. MRIs generate these images by using large magnets and radiofrequency concurrently. The magnets function to cause protons in the body to align with the magnetic field. Then, the radiofrequency current is pulsed, stimulating the proteins. When the radiofrequency is turned off, the protons realign with the magnetic field. A computer then captures the movement of the proteins, converting the signals created when the protons realign to the magnetic field into an image. These internal images tell doctors a lot.  To have an MRI done, patients lay on a table that slides into a long tube. The tube holds a very large, strong magnet. Magnets used in MRIs are approximately 3,000 times stronger than the magnets that stick to a refrigerator and can be turned on and off. Then, the radio frequencies are pulsed. Often, contrast dyes are given to the patient in advance of an MRI. These are absorbed by the body and result in a quicker response from the tissue to the magnetic and radio waves, resulting in clearer pictures. MRIs tend to be more expensive than X-ray imaging or CT scanning, but they offer lots of benefits. For example, MRIs are generally preferred for brain imaging because it does not employ x-rays or other radiation. 

Why Invest in MRI Technology?

The global market for MRI systems is expected to grow from $6.2 billion in 2020 to $7.8 billion by 2025. This is just a slice of the Medical Imaging Market as a whole, which is expected to reach $82.5 billion by 2027, according to Data Bridge Market Research. MRI technology is advancing in more ways than one and making better medical imaging more possible than ever.  First, improved software is generating more insights than before. Some software is enabling faster contrast scans, for example. Other software is allowing patients with implanted devices to have scans done. Notably, advancing software is also allowing for previously challenging scans of the heart and the air-filled lungs to be taken.  In addition to advancing software, MRIs are also launching with stronger magnets than ever before. These machines are producing more detailed images. Most MRI machines are 1.5 tesla (T) machines, with some as strong as 3.0T. In November 2020, the FDA approved 7.0T machine. GE Healthcare MR, who received the approval, anticipates that the new scanner will be “a critical tool in research for neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and mild traumatic brain injury,” according to a press release.  As technology improves, MRIs are becoming more instrumental in healthcare diagnosis.  Not only are MRIs continuing to gain traction for diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders, including brain injuries, but MRIs are also continuing to improve early cancer diagnosis. For example, a Phase III randomized clinical trial demonstrated that an MRI paired with targeted biopsies (MRI-TBx) has the potential to make prostate cancer diagnosis both more accurate and less invasive. MRIs can even be used as early intervention tools, in some instances. For example, MRIs have been used to assess brain development and literacy skills in preschoolers by measuring the gray matter surface on the brain.  MRI technology is also finding applications beyond clinical settings. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy recently selected GE Research Lab to  “build and test a prototype of a high-efficiency ultra-light low temperature superconducting (LTS) generator, leveraging innovations from GE’s MRI business.” As it turns out, years of figuring out how to increase the magnetic field to produce better medical images is now helping researchers to figure out how to make more efficient generators.  MRI technology has changed diagnostics, and it isn’t done yet. Investors should take note of the ongoing innovations in MRI technology and their potential to continue to improve early diagnostics and apply to other critical industries.

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