Diagnostics & Imaging Week Washington Writer

WASHINGTON – The field of medical diagnostics has come a long way since the advent of X-rays more than a century ago. And, moving forward, medical imaging in particular holds a wealth of promise for individuals and healthcare in general.

That was the takeaway message from a discussion sponsored by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (Rosslyn, Virginia), at an event here Tuesday drawing top government health officials as well as leading researchers and industry participants.

All praised the wide-ranging modalities available for imaging today, from mammography to MRI and computed tomography to positron emission technology, saying that these point to even greater diagnostic improvements down the road.

"Today, we don't do exploratory surgery," said James Davis, vice president of diagnostic imaging sales and marketing for GE Healthcare (Waukesha, Wisconsin). For the most part, he said, such procedures have been "rendered useless" by the advances in diagnostic imaging over the past 30 years.

He cited this as one very clear example of imaging's positive impact on medical practice, with such improvements resulting in more efficiency across healthcare in general and therefore leading to system-wide cost savings.

To underscore that thought, he cited less-invasive cardiac procedures in cath labs that result in little or no surgery, fewer complications and shorter hospital stays. Equally important, Davis said, is the use of imaging in medical research.

"Where do we go from here is the real question," said Elias Zerhouni, MD, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH; Bethesda, Maryland). Zerhouni, who himself comes from a lengthy background in imaging, was quick to espouse its future merits for healthcare.

Chiefly he pointed to trends in detecting diseases at the subclinical level, through molecular and cellular analyses.

Echoing an oft-spoken theme at the Tuesday gathering, Zerhouni said: "We need to transform medicine" from curative practices that try to reverse diseases once they have taken hold, to pre-emptive, personalized practices, "an era where we don't have to intervene anymore."

For example, he said that Type 1 diabetes could be detected earlier by way of a non-invasive imaging technology that uses a vascular probe containing magnetic nanoparticles that can be detected by MRI. Such a technique, it is hoped, could lead to the early detection of beta cell destruction, before the disease takes hold of a patient, and allow for targeted prevention and treatment strategies.

In cancer, molecular imaging could be used to identify altered genes, molecular pathways and tumor receptors to elucidate tumor behavior and provide information on appropriate drug intervention.

If knowledge gleaned from molecular and cellular imaging in fact leads to more personalized medicines, merging all that information with communications and data-sharing tools that fall under the information technology umbrella will further increase efficiency. Of course, the push toward healthcare applications in information technology continues to gain momentum across the healthcare spectrum.

And according to survey results unveiled at the discussion, the U.S. public stands behind government efforts to increase research in order to improve healthcare outcomes.

Mary Woolley, president and CEO of the polling firm Research!America (Alexandria, Virginia), said that 58% of Americans feel that it's very important to accelerate medical and health research. Also, 78% regard controlling healthcare costs as very important, and more than two-thirds favor efforts to maintain the role of the U.S. as the global healthcare leader.

Such numbers speak to the high priority given healthcare by the American public, a fact not lost on Zerhouni, who cautioned that government research funding would "dry out" if there was no public trust.

Among new funding opportunities available through the government is the Quantum Program, recently established by the newest NIH division, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB).

NIBIB's aim is to lead to profound advances in healthcare by funding research on targeted projects to develop new technologies and modalities for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease.

Roderic Pettigrew, PhD, MD, who heads the NIBIB, said he hopes that the program's funding will lead to a "medical moonshot" in the next seven to 10 years, meaning a discovery that offers an imaging breakthrough with broad impact on healthcare – much as MRI had when it was introduced.

If the sky is the limit for the future of imaging, then the future is bright.

"This is a race without a finish line," said James Thrall, MD, radiologist-in-chief at Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston).

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association bills itself as the world's largest trade group representing medical imaging manufacturers.