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Kamil Ugurbil

Today's brain imaging capabilities owe a lot to the University's Kamil Ugurbil, who was just elected to the national Institute of Medicine.

Outstanding in his fields

Kamil Ugurbil, a pioneer in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), is elected to national Institute of Medicine

By Nick Hanson

November 27, 2007

When Kamil Ugurbil joined the University of Minnesota in 1982, he didn't even have an office on the Twin Cities campus. Instead, the young assistant professor of biochemistry was stationed on the shores of Lake Minnetonka, at the Gray Freshwater Biological Institute. At the institute, established by the University for the study of lake biology, his skills with magnetic resonance spectroscopy were useful for monitoring metabolism in living bacteria. But Ugurbil didn't limit himself to the study of bacteria. Today he is the director and founder of the Center for Magnetic Resonance and Research (CMRR), a key interdisciplinary building used by researchers from nearly every medical field at the University. During the 25 years since Ugurbil arrived here, he and his colleagues in CMRR have developed techniques and machines that help researchers view the inside of human and nonhuman animal bodies through noninvasive, high-powered magnetic scans, and he has become a legend in the field of MRI. In October, Ugurbil was recognized for his achievements by being inducted into the Institute of Medicine. Established in 1970 by the National Academy of Sciences, IOM boasts a roster of the nation's top medical scientists. Getting into the IOM is no small feat. Members are elected through a highly selective process that recognizes people who have made major contributions to the advancement of the medical sciences, health care, and public health. Election is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of medicine and health. "It's a great honor to be recognized by your peers," Ugurbil said. "This is very important for a scientist. It's one of the most important rewards."

Stronger fields, higher stakes

After life on Lake Minnetonka, Ugurbil moved to campus and created the CMRR--first located near Coffman Union, now on the outskirts of campus--and began work with even more powerful magnets. "We were able to obtain fantastic information in the living animal," he says, "but we wanted to do [MRI] on humans."

"The scientific community has jumped into the game," Ugurbil says. "In the last two years, the type of instrumentation and research capability we pioneered has exploded."

And that's exactly what Ugurbil and his colleagues did. The University of Minnesota CMRR was one of the three institutions across the world to receive, for the first time, a 4 Tesla system capable of accommodating human scans at a time when MRI in humans was carried out at 1.5 Tesla. (The Tesla is a unit of magnetic field strength; a 5 Tesla magnet would have 100,000 times the strength of Earth's magnetic field.) Because high magnetic fields are not easy to work with, the consensus in the scientific field was that human imaging at 4 Tesla would be "scientific suicide," Ugurbil says. Sure enough, he and his CMRR colleagues were one of the two teams that independently and concurrently performed the first functional brain scan and presented images of the brain at work. This allowed researchers to better investigate how the normal brain functions and to use these methods to study mental illness. That monumental achievement thrust the CMRR into the spotlight. By 1993, CMRR housed a first-of-its-kind 9.4 Tesla system for animal research; in 1999 it received its first 7 Tesla human system, and it now possesses one of the world's three 9.4 Tesla systems for work with humans. The next step will be getting a 16.4 Tesla magnet for research animals. Ugurbil is confident the center will be home to one within the next year and a half. Looking back, Ugurbil says the University should be proud of its history in biomedical imaging. "We have developed a lot of the techniques and applied them to neurosciences, tumor biology, cardiac function, and others," he says. "It has been a very successful effort, and a very important one." Many of those whom Ugurbil mentored at the University of Minnesota are now at other universities and research institutions, practicing the techniques they learned and helped develop at CMRR. And the scientific field of magnetic resonance imaging continues to grow. "The scientific community has jumped into the game," Ugurbil says. "In the last two years, the type of instrumentation and research capability we pioneered has exploded." Yet there's no doubt, when it comes to neuroimaging, the University of Minnesota CMRR and Ugurbil are still the reigning kings.