Good design key to collaboration in Robarts clinical imaging labs

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How can we better understand, treat and ultimately prevent debilitating chronic diseases of the bones, lungs, arteries and heart? By bringing together talented clinicians and researchers across a range of disciplines and equipping them with the tools they need to answer important questions in biology and medicine.

While that is no doubt easier said than done, good laboratory design can help. The new Clinical Imaging Research Laboratories at Robarts Research Institute in London, Ont. – designed by architects Tillmann, Ruth, Mocellin and built by Ellis-Don in close consultation with researchers – brings together a number of elements that aim to promote productive collaborations in respiratory, cardiovascular and orthopedic medicine.

Officially opened in Fall 2004, the 10,000 sq. ft. facility includes comfortable waiting and changing areas for research subjects, rooms for blood work and physical examinations, a radiological dark room, clinician offices, room for technicians and trainees along with space to be developed for orthopedic research as well as valuable in-house engineering. Rooms and components are all built around a spacious, naturally lit 3T MRI facility that is the focal point of the Clinical Imaging Research Labs. The overall design aims to facilitate critical interactions between clinician-scientists, engineers, physicists and biologists – key to advancing our understanding of non-invasive “biomarkers” of disease and health.

Dr. Brian Rutt, Director of the new 3T MRI facility within the Clinical Imaging Research Laboratories, is not only spearheading advances in this technology but is also leading the cardiovascular imaging research program at Robarts, newly expanded through the creation of the Beryl and Richard Ivey Centre for Cardiovascular Imaging. One of the newest studies at the Centre, for example, brings Robarts imaging expertise together with collaborators from Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital. The $2.3 million U.S. research project – led by Robarts scientist Dr. Brian Rutt and Dr. Ralph Weissleder of Harvard and funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the U.S. National Institutes of Health – aims to develop molecular imaging nanosensors that will detect extremely early events in atherosclerosis and inflammation. Another project underway at the facility involves clinician-scientist Dr. David Spence, who is working with Robarts colleagues Drs. Aaron Fenster and Grace Parraga, to track the progression of atherosclerotic plaque in asymptomatic carotid disease patients, using 3D-ultrasound among other imaging modalities.

“This new clinical imaging research facility brings together the best clinicians, the best research scientists and the best equipment to test new ideas and push the frontiers of non-invasive medical imaging,” says Dr. Mark Poznansky, Robarts President and Scientific Director, noting research volunteers can take part in studies that use state-of-the-art technologies, including high- and low-field MRI, 3D-ultrasound and computed radiography.

In respiratory imaging research, medical physicist Dr. Giles Santyr, Director of the Merck Frosst Centre for Respiratory Imaging within the new facility, is breaking new ground: his is one of a handful of laboratories in the world that is developing the use of gas contrast agents (inhaled and held in the lungs) for low-field MRI scanning that will allow the exploration of inflamed and diseased airways of the lungs in disorders such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. This emerging lung imaging research program draws on the collaborative strengths of a number of Robarts scientists, including Drs. Ian Cunningham, David Holdsworth, Grace Parraga and Brian Rutt.

Located on the 2nd floor of Robarts’ seven-storey expansion, the Clinical Imaging Research Labs build on the Institute’s excellent track record in medical imaging. Robarts is already home to Canada’s first high-field MRI research lab, established in 1996 by Dr. Ravi Menon, and has pioneered important advances not only in MRI but in CT and ultrasound technology with applications in neurological, cardiovascular and orthopedic research. The new facility also brings together orthopedic surgeons, musculoskeletal biologists and imaging scientists, including Dr. David Holdsworth, whose work in 3D-CT and bi-directional X-ray imaging is refining approaches in joint replacement and shedding new light on the disease process and effectiveness of treatments for bone disorders such as arthritis and osteoporosis.