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Imaging Lab Draws from Impressive Arsenal to Fight Major Health Threats

By Robin Hindery, UCSF Science Cafe | April 30, 2009

Surrounded by cutting-edge equipment most people couldn't even turn on, much less operate, researchers at a UCSF imaging laboratory are using innovative techniques to study and improve the treatment of life-altering medical conditions, from cancer to multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease.

The Margaret Hart Surbeck Laboratory of Advanced Imaging, located within the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) building on UCSF's Mission Bay campus, is home to some of the world's most powerful and fastest noninvasive imaging tools. It is also a sort of intellectual hub where roughly 100 researchers and staff conduct studies and develop new technologies aimed at advancing biomedical research, said lab director Sarah Nelson, PhD.

The Surbeck Lab umbrella covers six major faculty labs, four collaborative research programs and several core facilities, but it also regularly brings in researchers, postdoctoral scholars and graduate students from more than a dozen departments across UCSF.

"It's an extremely collaborative environment," said Nelson, a professor in the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging and co-chair of the newly created Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences. "Our overall focus is to develop new imaging techniques and apply basic engineering to biology- and disease-oriented research. Everything we do is aimed at translational medicine."

The field of advanced diagnostic imaging is progressing rapidly, and UCSF is at the forefront of that evolution, thanks in part to the Surbeck Lab's impressive arsenal of equipment.

Two of the most powerful imaging tools at the lab are the 3-tesla (3T) and 7-tesla (7T) MRI scanners. The 3T scanner generates a magnetic field twice as strong as the previous industry standard for high-field imaging -- the 1.5T scanner -- and 10 to 15 times the strength of low-field or open MRI scanners.

Weighing in at 36 tons and surrounded by 400 metric tons of steel, UCSF's $7 million 7T scanner dwarfs even the 3T in its capabilities. One of about 20 in the world, it is currently approved for research but not for clinical use, Nelson said.

"Imaging is really changing. Instead of merely detecting disease, today's imaging techniques can characterize and quantify how abnormal an individual's condition is," said Daniel Vigneron, PhD, associate director of the Surbeck Lab and a professor in the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging.

Read more at Robin Hindery, UCSF Science Cafe