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Ohio researchers get over $1 million to fund 'virtual' AI contrast agent

by John R. Fischer, Senior Reporter | January 08, 2024
Artificial Intelligence CT MRI X-Ray
Ohio researchers are designing an AI 'virtual' contrast agent as an alternative to chemical-based ones in medical imaging.
Over the next four years, researchers at Case Western Reserve University and the University Hospitals Cleveland (UH Cleveland) will finance the development of an AI-based “virtual” contrast agent, designing it as a potential alternative to chemical-based agents for medical imaging, using a $1.125 million grant.

By producing non-contrast agents, the researchers say that clinicians would be able to save time and money spent on administering contrast agents in X-ray, CT, and MR exams, as well as avoid allergic reactions and other short-term adverse side effects associated with them. Additionally, an AI contrast agent may help alleviate supply chain challenges, a prime example being the global shortage of iodinated contrast media in 2022.

“Virtual contrast-enhanced imaging could save time and money, while continuing to provide the best care to patients,” said project leader Shuo Li, an associate professor at the Case School of Engineering (CSE), in a statement.
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To create an AI contrast agent, the researchers, who are members of the Case Center for Imaging Research, will study a new category of image features to develop, train, and validate new algorithm models to collect diagnostic information from MR scans.

The grant was supplied by the National Science Foundation Smart Health and Biomedical Research in the Era of Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Data Science, an interagency program dedicated to advancing computer and information science, engineering, mathematics, statistics, behavioral, and cognitive research for biomedical and public health.

Global shortages have led to delays in medical imaging exams that for many patients cannot come fast enough and create long-term access barriers and backlogs for clinicians later on, increasing feelings of burnout and frustration.

In March 2022, GE HealthCare was forced to shut down its Shanghai factory in response to COVID-19 lockdowns in the city, halting worldwide distributions of Omnipaque (iohexol) and Visipaque (iodixanol). This led to rationing of agents worldwide, with radiologists urging their colleagues to prioritize supplies and use alternative means for imaging patients, such as gadolinium-based scans.

A study back then, published in Radiology, said that such events are no longer rare, and that health systems should be ready for more.

Other organizations are also working to create imaging technologies that free scanners from the need for contrast agents. Last month, Horizon Europe, a seven-year research initiative by the European Union, granted €6 million (over $6.5 million) to the NetZeroAICT Consortium to fund development and commercialization of its CT Digital Contrast technology. The technology uses AI and deep learning to extract high levels of data from non-contrast CT scans and synthesize contrast digitally, reducing CT environmental footprints while making scanning safer due to the lack of chemical-based agents.

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