First India-made MRI scanner to be launched for clinical work in October

The indigenously developed machine is characterised by several innovations, including avoiding reliance on scarcely available liquid helium, bottom-up software design, and customised hardware

Updated - August 12, 2023 09:16 pm IST

Published - August 12, 2023 05:52 pm IST - NEW DELHI

A view of the MRI scanner developed by Bengaluru-based Voxelgrids Innovations. Image taken from website.

A view of the MRI scanner developed by Bengaluru-based Voxelgrids Innovations. Image taken from website.

Since 2006, the world has been battling a shortage of helium, which despite being the second most abundant element in the universe, is a rare commodity on earth. The only way to source helium is to extract it from natural gas reserves. While used in a variety of applications — from electronic components to rocket propulsion — helium’s most common use is as a coolant in large superconducting magnets powering Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners. The Russia-Ukraine war has further squeezed liquid helium supply with ripple effects on diagnostic facilities around the world, including India, thus unable to fully utilise their MRI scanners.

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However, a new class of scanners, developed in Bengaluru, gets around this. This MRI scanner is designed in a way to avoid reliance on liquid helium, and if at all there’s a need to rapidly cool the scanner’s magnets, the far cheaper and more abundant liquid nitrogen can be used to get the job done. These and other innovations characterise the first made-in-India MRI scanner developed by the Bangalore-based Voxelgrids Innovations Private Limited that is set to unveil its first clinically validated product in October at the Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, Bengaluru.

MRI, while the definitive tool to provide three-dimensional images of tissues, and the best bet for warning of nascent tumours, continues to be inaccessible to several Indians who require it.

The Ministry of Science and Technology estimates that India currently has about 4,500 MRI scanners, which is a third of what is required, given the population. The scarcity also means higher costs, with prices ranging from ₹5,000 to ₹25,000 for MRI services, depending on the scanning requirements.

Being customised machines made by a few multinational companies — GE Healthcare, Siemens, Philips, Hitachi and Toshiba — depending on the magnification they provide, scanners can cost anywhere from ₹5 crore and upward. Refurbished machines, set up in some hospitals, are cheaper at ₹1.5- 3 crore.

While an exact figure wasn’t divulged, Voxelgrids’ MRI scanners, which employ 1.5T magnets (one Tesla or T is about 30,000 times stronger than the earth’s magnetic field), would be “40% cheaper” than the new ones currently available in the market, Arjun Arunachalam, CEO, Voxelgrids Innovations, told The Hindu.

The cost of scanning will be potentially cut by 30%. 

“While there are several innovations involved in it, the key was being in our decision to design the software underlying the scanner from bottom up. Because of this, we were able to make our own customised hardware. We even made our own magnets,” he said.

The Voxelgrids scanners, won’t look very different from the conventional doughnut-shaped machines into which people — shorn of any metal on their persons — must lie perfectly immobile while they are scanned. “However, they can potentially spend less time in our scanner due to our software that enables faster scans,” Dr. Arunachalam said.

The scanner weighs 2.3 tonnes lighter than the average 2.9-5 tonnes of a typical scanner’s weight. “This allows for it to be mounted on mobile platforms and transported to healthcare settings outside cities,” he added.

The journey to making one wasn’t easy. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, U.S., Dr. Arunachalam first learnt the intricacies of MRI scanners and even worked in 2008 as an MRI physicist with the General Electric Research, Schenectady, New York — considered the birthplace of the conventional MRI scanner. Inspired to make his own, he knocked on multiple doors for collaborations and funds to build this device. It wasn’t until 2016, however, that he was funded by Tata Trusts.

While this helped him organise a team, develop the software, and a prototype, the team eventually ran out of funds. In 2019, a ₹12 crore grant from the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), steered by the Department of Biotechnology, helped the company move to its own dedicated facility.

While Voxelgrids has only built one full-fledged scanner, they have commitments to build 10 more, aided by a $5 million (approximately ₹40 crore) investment in 2021 by Zoho Corporation.

This year, the company also has a clinical certification from the Central Drugs and Standards Control Organisation (CDSCO), which is necessary to commercially sell their devices. “This October, we hope to launch our first clinical site at Whitefield, Bangalore with Zoho Corp,” Dr. Arunachalam said.

SAMEER, a research and development outfit of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, had launched a programme to build an Indian MRI machine in 2015. As late as April 2022, according to a public document, it had only begun issuing a commercial contract to private sector entities to build a “commercial scanner”. Though the product was to be ready in August 2022, there’s still no report of it having been built.

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