2/2011

Healthy or not? Numbers reveal health problems

Hannu Eskola

“We operate in close collaboration with radiologists and other specialists at Tampere
University Hospital, which is a great advantage – otherwise our work would not be possible.
In addition to engineers, we need motivated doctors with a genuine desire to learn and
develop medical technology,” says Professor Hannu Eskola. Chief Physician Prasun
Dastidar
is part of the TIC research group.

New technology developed by Professor Hannu Eskola and his research group reveals details in MRI images that cannot be discerned with the naked eye.

The group's findings have attracted widespread interest in the scientific community: their research has been widely cited in scientific journals and researchers from all over the world have expressed an interest in joining the group in Tampere.

The TIC (Tissue Characterization) research group headed by Hannu Eskola has explored quantitative image analysis methods and the process of generating quantitative data based on images produced by, for example, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography.

In other words, the group converts MRI and CT scans into quantitative data to enable closer analysis. The data can be used, for example, to detect the presence of abnormalities, estimate their severity and monitor patients' response to therapy.

The main focus of Eskola's group is texture analysis that is based on machine vision. The method strives to classify textural features of the original image and identify repeated, though perhaps vague, patterns with a regular frequency. Some textural features can be seen without optical aids, but others are below the limits of human visual perception.

Optimistic engineers have long since envisioned that one day technology will replace radiologists, as diagnoses will be achieved and X-rays analysed automatically. Is this vision becoming a reality?

"We believe that it's easier to draw the line between sickness and health by looking at numbers rather than images. Of course the new method cannot replace radiologists, but it can help them in their work."

More medical technology,
more medical physicists

When cancer patients are treated with radiation therapy in Finland, doctors know the exact amount of radiation that their cells are exposed to. Hospitals are well-equipped and the methods developed in Finland for calculating radiation doses are first rate. The responsibility for using the methods lies with trained professionals: medical physicists.

Roughly 100 medical physicists work in Finnish hospitals. The need for experts in the field is constantly growing due to the increasing use of medical technology to examine and treat patients. Medical physicists assure the safe and effective delivery of radiation during, among others, radiation therapy and X-ray, MRI, ultrasound and isotope scans.

Becoming a medical physicist requires a serious educational commitment. Students must obtain a licentiate degree, complete four years of practical training and pass a comprehensive examination in both medical physics and radiation safety.

There are about 20 professors in Finnish universities whose field of specialty is connected to medical technology. Half of them work at TUT. From 2011 to 2013, the University will oversee the national advisory council that coordinates specialization in medical physics.

Customized treatment through close monitoring

Aside from the group based in Tampere, there has been little research worldwide into the texture analysis of MRI images. The TIC group at Tampere University Hospital has pioneered the clinical application of texture analysis. The method has been tested, among others, as a tool for diagnosing lymphoma, breast cancer, multiple sclerosis and brain injuries and for monitoring the results of treatment.

"The method has already yielded promising results. It is, for example, capable of detecting minuscule details in brain images that radiologists cannot see with the naked eye," says Hannu Eskola.

If a patient has suffered a minor head injury after a fall, he may show symptoms that MRIs and radiologists cannot explain. Texture analysis, however, can reveal a significant asymmetry between the two cerebral hemispheres. This finding is useful for a number of reasons. Knowing the cause of the symptoms helps doctors select the best treatment available and monitor the healing process. In addition, arriving at the correct diagnosis is essential in terms of legal protection and possible insurance coverage.

The method has also been used to monitor the response to treatment among patients suffering from lymphoma, a cancer in the lymphatic cells. Deciding the best course of treatment is challenging at the different stages of lymphoma. Exact monitoring enables doctors to find the most effective treatment for individual patients and helps them deliver more personalized care.

The first three dissertations written by researchers in the TIC research group have been published this year.

 

Further information:

Department of Biomedical Engineering

 

Text: Aila Välikoski
Photo: Petri Laitinen

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