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IBM, Mayo Clinic team up to improve medical imaging

Researchers studying use of the PlayStation 3 Cell chip to track tumor growth

January 9, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - IBM today announced that it has teamed up with the Mayo Clinic to develop a research facility aimed at advancing medical imaging. The partners hope the effort will result in technology that will enable doctors and radiologists to more effectively track patients' health and treatment.

Researchers from both the Mayo Clinic and IBM will work at the new Medical Imaging Informatics Innovation Center in Rochester, Minn. Bradley Erickson, chairman of radiology at the Rochester-based Mayo Clinic, told Computerworld that a joint team is already working to find ways to use the Cell chip, mostly known for running inside the PlayStation 3 videogame console, in a medical imaging system. Erickson said that single technology could enable work that now takes minutes to take seconds or that now takes hours take minutes.

That saved time can mean a great deal when it comes to treating patients with life-threatening illnesses, he noted.

"It changes how we think about things," said Erickson. "We are facing significant problems in medical imaging because the number of images produced in CT scanners basically tracks Moore's Law. My eyes and brain can't keep up. I see more and more images I have to interpret. ... The innovation here is to take computer chips and extract the information in these increasing number of images and help present it usefully to the radiologist."

Erickson did note that any of the group's current efforts to create imaging or computer devices won't be providing widespread benefits anytime soon. Right now, the researchers are concentrating on vetting ideas. "It's helping to bridge the gap between having an idea and the final product," he added. "The innovation center helps us figure out which ideas are good and which ones aren't."

Erickson said that researchers are specifically looking at how the Cell chip, which was collaboratively developed by Sony Corp., IBM and Toshiba Corp., could speed up the imaging process. He explained that an algorithm is needed to match up new images with a patient's old images and to check for any changes in a tumor, for instance. With the computer the Mayo Clinic is now using, it would take a few minutes to run the algorithm and get the new and old images lined up successfully. With the Cell chip, which is very good at doing raw computations, the process could be done in a second.

"A minute might not sound like a lot of time," said Erickson. "But because there are many different ways you might want to compare images, that adds up. It becomes unworkable."

He added that it's not unusual to be thinking about using a gaming processor in a medical imaging machine. He noted that a lot of high-powered graphics cards and other gaming technologies are often used in medical imaging.

"This is focusing on the quality of the medicine," said Erickson. "We might take an image of someone's brain tumor to see if it's getting better or worse or staying the same. We're looking for really subtle changes. You might find out after two months of radiation that it's not working, and you want to switch their treatment. If you have a human interpret that image, they may not see any difference, and the doctor will have them keep on with that same treatment, which in reality is not helping. ... We can have a computer take that image and focus more quickly on what areas need attention."

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