Iowa City Press-Citizen: UI Lowers 42-Ton Magnet into New Biomedical Building

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Web Note:  The Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building will be the new home for the Iowa Institute for Biomedical Imaging, a research unit of the College of Engineering.  Biomedical engineering alumnus Vincent Magnotta, professor of radiology and biomedical engineering and a researcher at IIBI, was interviewed for this news story.

By Josh O'Leary
Iowa City Press-Citizen

The University of Iowa's new Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building, poised to open this summer, will soon be humming with sophisticated research instruments.

On Thursday afternoon, crews installed what will likely be the building's largest and most expensive piece of equipment, newly arrived via a cross-country highway trek and, before that, a transatlantic voyage.

Onlookers gathered on a nearby rooftop and skywalk as crane operators lowered a 42-ton superconducting magnet into the basement of the new facility on UI's medical campus.

The $8 million magnet — or more accurately, a 7 Tesla MRI Scanner — is one of just 20 or so of its kind in the U.S. and 40 worldwide, putting UI in elite company and on the cutting edge of imaging research, university leaders said. The scanner will be the most powerful magnetic imaging device in Iowa, once it's online this fall.

Crews installed a 42-ton MRI magnet in the basement of the new Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building. Josh O'Leary / Iowa City Press-Citizen

"It really puts us at the front of the pack, and it's an exciting opportunity for us in terms of moving forward, particularly with neuroscience," said Peg Nopoulos, a professor in psychiatry, neurology and pediatrics.

The six-story, $126 million Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building is in its final stages of construction, and workers are scheduled to begin moving in this summer and fall. The massive magnet will be the centerpiece of the Iowa Institute for Biomedical Imaging, which will be housed in the building.

The scanner was manufactured by GE Healthcare in the United Kingdom and took two years to build. After it was shipped to the U.S., the magnet made the trip from Baltimore to Iowa City this week aboard a flatbed semi and arrived at the Newton Road construction site Thursday. Workers then strapped the instrument to a crane, hoisted it several feet off the ground, pivoted and, in just a few short minutes, smoothly deposited the magnet into a below-ground vault.

Vincent Magnotta, an associate professor of radiology, psychiatry and biomedical engineering, said the MRI magnet's installation was a long-awaited milestone.

UI submitted its grant proposal for the MRI machine five years ago, when planning for the new biomedical building was still in its early stages. Two years later, UI received word it had received the $7.97 million grant — federal stimulus act funds — from the NIH's National Center for Research Resources.

The 7T scanner, which produces high-resolution images of microscopic structures with the human body, will be used for research and not patient care, Nopoulos said.

The magnet is nearly two and a half times stronger than the 3T MRI machine currently in use at UI's Medical Education and Research Facility, said Magnotta, who likened the upgrade to getting to giving researchers a more powerful microscope lens.

"So we'll be able to see new structures that we couldn't see before, define some structures and identify structures reliably that were kind of blurry in the past," Magnotta said.

Nopoulos said MRI scanners are one of the best tools scientists have for brain research, and called the acquisition of the new instrument "a huge advance for us in neuroscience."

The instrument specifically will help UI make strides in its research into degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's, said Nopoulos. It will also help scientists better understand the developing brain of children and assist in oncology research.

"This really allows us to step up our game, so we will be ahead of other scientists in seeing more clearly structures we couldn't see well before, and even measure brain function and brain chemicals," Nopoulos said. "Some of these things we could do before, but now we can certainly do them much better, with much finer focus and really improve our tools and our outcomes."