By LUKE OAKDEN-RAYNER, MD
Super-resolution* promises to be one of the most impactful medical imaging AI technologies, but only if it is safe.
Last week we saw the FDA approve the first MRI super-resolution product, from the same company that received approval for a similar PET product last year. This news seems as good a reason as any to talk about the safety concerns myself and many other people have with these systems.
Disclaimer: the majority of this piece is about medical super-resolution in general, and not about the SubtleMR system itself. That specific system is addressed directly near the end.
Super-resolution is, quite literally, the “zoom and enhance” CSI meme in the gif at the top of this piece. You give the computer a low quality image and it turns it into a high resolution one. Pretty cool stuff, especially because it actually kind of works.
In medical imaging though, it’s better than cool. You ever wonder why an MRI costs so much and can have long wait times? Well, it is because you can only do one scan every 20-30 minutes (with some scans taking an hour or more). The capital and running costs are only spread across one to two dozen patients per day.
So what if you could get an MRI of the same quality in 5 minutes? Maybe two to five times more scans (the “getting patient ready for the scan” time becomes the bottleneck), meaning less cost and more throughput.
This is the dream of medical super-resolution.
But this isn’t AI making magical MRI machines. There is a hard limit to the speed of MRI – the time it takes to acquire an image is determined by how long it takes for spinning protons to relax after they get energised with radio waves. We are running up against some pretty fundamental subatomic physics