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Nobel Prize Winners

October 6, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Today’s Nobel Prize winners began their pioneering work on magnetic resonance imaging more than three decades ago. Today, MRI’s, as they are more commonly known, are common. More than 60 million examinations are performed each year around the world. The imaging allows doctors to take a close look at a patient’s organs and tissues, avoid invasive surgeries, and often diagnose a disease. Today’s Nobel recipients– American chemist Paul Lauterbur, and English physicist, Sir Peter Mansfield– developed and expanded on the technology.

For more on these men and the impact of their discovery, I’m joined by Dr. Elias Zerhouni, the director of the national institutes of health. Welcome. Many of us have either had MRI’s or know people who have had them. But describe to news lay men’s language what they actually are.

DR. ELIAS ZERHOUNI: Sure. MRI is essentially the dominant technique that has evolved over the past 30 years to image the brain, image the spine, image the spinal cord. And the reason it works is because of Dr. Lauterbur’s discovery in the early 70s, that you could look inside the body, and look at the atoms inside nuclei within your body. Remember that we are made up of water mostly.

And we found a way, a very clever way, to detect where the signal was coming from. We knew about nuclear magnetic resonance for years before that, but no one had come up with the idea of how you would get the signal from the right side of the body or the left side of the body. The way he did it is by creating a small difference in the magnet between right and left side, and so that he could tell by just the pitch of the signal where the signal was coming from.

GWEN IFILL: And Dr. Mansfield did what to add to that?

DR. ELIAS ZERHOUNI: Then Dr. Mansfield had the brilliant idea of using a method of mathematics that had been discovered in the 1800’s, and use computers to extract the image at a very high speed. So he’s recognized for being the one who found the practical way of generating the images, Dr. Lauterbur found a way to create those images, but Dr. Mansfield found a way to create very fast images, which we are using today.

GWEN IFILL: And what other practical improvements or difference in the way medicine is practiced as a result of —

DR. ELIAS ZERHOUNI: Let me tell you — I’m a radiologist myself and I’m an MRI specialist by training before I became MIH Director. And in my career between the 25 years of my career, 1975 to 2000, there was a complete revolution in the way we practiced medicine. When we ask doctors, what were the key inventions or discoveries of the past 30 years, computer tomography, cat scanners and MRI’s come at the very top, because they allow you to diagnose a disease, detect its presence before, sometimes before it harms you.

GWEN IFILL: Now why is it different the way an MRI operates from say an X-ray or a CAT scan?

DR. ELIAS ZERHOUNI: The CAT scan requires X rays, and X rays require X rays and they are radiation. The radiation interacts with the electrons in your body, whereas an MRI does not rely on that at all. It relies on the nucleus of atoms giving us a radio signal. Well, it’s completely harmless, because nuclei of atoms don’t participate in our biochemistry.

GWEN IFILL: So there’s no side effect?

DR. ELIAS ZERHOUNI: There’s no known harmful effect of MRI.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you again about that, because we’re talking about cancer, is that the kind of disease, or heart disease or brain?

DR. ELIAS ZERHOUNI: I’ll tell you what MRI is used for, in practice today. 50 percent of the time we use MRI to look at the brain, and the spinal cord. To look at the nervous structures of the body. 25 percent of the time we will use it for looking at the spine itself, the bones around, the cartilage, and also looking at the shoulder or knees, in what we call in the skeletal system. And the rest is to look at cardiovascular system. MRI can image the vessels in the body without any injection of dye, and we look at the tumors that affect liver or lungs or even the pelvic organs, this is a very good method to look at the uterus, and the ovaries or the prostate. So there are many uses, but the dominant use is in the brain and spinal cord.

GWEN IFILL: Which diseases that we’re familiar with would be the most likely —

DR. ELIAS ZERHOUNI: It can diagnosis stroke, which is a very frequent — it can tell actually whether the brain that has been damaged by stroke can be salvaged, can be repaired or not. It can image tumors, it can image multiple sclerosis – it’s the only technique that can do that.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Lauterbur made his first discovery in 1971 – more than 30 years have passed. Today they get the Nobel Prize. What was the lag time about?

DR. ELIAS ZERHOUNI: The Nobel Prize Committee works in a very secretive way. And from what I know, they like to wait to see if a discovery really has had a big impact. And it was obvious by 1990 that this would have a huge impact. But not as large as what it is today. So the committee tends to wait to see for sure that the discovery has been important to medicine.

GWEN IFILL: I read today that there was also some debate within the scientific community about who was actually responsible, who really deserved the credit here. Was that some of the reason for the delay?

DR. ELIAS ZERHOUNI: Perhaps. You always have an issue when you look at a Nobel Prize that can only be given to three people in any one year as to exactly where the idea came from. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Dr. Lauterbur deserved it, Dr. Mansfield deserved it. It was long overdue in my mind as to the recognition of this brilliant discovery that he made actually in a paper that is not even a page long in a magazine called Science Magazine, and it was less than a page long, but it made a revolution.

GWEN IFILL: Something he apparently scribbled down while having a hamburger.

DR. ELIAS ZERHOUNI: That’s right, he was having diner and all of a sudden had a stroke of genius.

GWEN IFILL: This combination of computer science, physics and medicine all come together here.

DR. ELIAS ZERHOUNI: That’s exactly right. As the NIH Director if there’s one message for me here is that the marriage of chemistry, physics, computer science and medicine combined is what makes progress happen faster and that’s what we try to do at NIH as well. We’re happy that Dr. Lauterbur is one of our grantees and, you know, out of the 80 Nobel Prizes in medicine, 60 were funded or trained by NIH, so we’re very proud of that.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you very much for joining us.

DR. ELIAS ZERHOUNI: Thank you, Gwen.