A clear vision of success

28 Jan 2016

Author: Christopher Niesche

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As one of the world’s leading innovators in medical imaging technology, Professor Stuart Crozier is touching the lives of countless patients. His advancements in MRI scanner technology have been used in billions of scans and are helping doctors around the world make better and more timely diagnoses, improving patients’ wellbeing and saving lives.
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It was only when Stuart Crozier and his colleagues shook hands on a deal with global healthcare giant GE Healthcare that he realised the technology he’d co-invented was going to affect the lives of countless patients worldwide.

Crozier, Director of the Biomedical Engineering and MedTeQ Centre at the University of Queensland, and his team developed a way to make images from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners clearer. This innovation vastly enhanced the value of MRI machines as a diagnostic tool and helped clinicians detect diseases and cancers earlier. The technology is now central to more than 65% of all MRI scanners manufactured and has been used in billions of scans. 

Crozier still remembers the day he completed a deal for the technology to be licensed to GE Healthcare, one of the world’s largest medical equipment and technology companies.

“We shook hands on the deal with GE Healthcare after protracted negotiations and then they told us the volume of their sales and the reach of the machines around the world. It was only then we realised we would be a part of the diagnosis of huge numbers of patients,” says Crozier. “That is such a wonderful feeling.”

Along with GE Healthcare, another major manufacturer of MRI machines, Siemens Technology, has licensed Crozier’s technology. These deals have brought tens of millions of dollars into The University of Queensland in Australia. 

“Our timing was really fabulous in terms of focusing on the technology of MRI and the engineering of it,” says Crozier. 

This early success was the first of several medical technology breakthroughs Crozier and his colleagues have made. He currently holds 24 patents for MRI-related technologies and his expertise in designing medical devices and developing new applications has had a significant global impact. 

Crozier migrated to Australia with his family from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north of England when he was six years old. He grew up in Brisbane, where his father was a motor mechanic.

A talent for maths and physics, and an interest in health and medicine, led Crozier to study a Bachelor of Engineering, specialising in electrical engineering, at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Before he started his undergraduate degree, Crozier undertook an internship at the biomedical engineering department of the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane, Queensland. What he saw there sparked his interest in designing and developing medical devices.

“I saw engineers working on cool things. But I also saw clinicians and allied health workers not being able to treat patients as effectively as they needed to because their diagnostic methods weren’t up to it,” Crozier recalls. “Some of the treatments were also inadequate. They were quite clear about the things that they wanted to do but couldn’t, and some of that was because of a lack of technology.”

After completing his undergraduate degree, Crozier joined the Princess Alexandra Hospital and the Queensland Government’s medical physics department, and started on a part-time masters degree in medical physics at QUT. It established a pattern whereby Crozier would undertake part-time higher education into areas that related to his day job.

“The work that I was doing motivated the study and the study helped to improve the work,” says Crozier, who also completed a PhD and a higher doctorate at the University of Queensland. This was followed by  short stints working in laboratories in Nottingham in the UK , Gannesville Florida in the USA and in Tsukuba in Japan.

Following their success with clearer imaging, Crozier’s team looked to reduce the size of the magnets MRI machines needed to operate. MRI machines use superconducting magnets cooled to minus 269 degrees Celsius.

The large size of the magnets meant the machines were expensive and took up a lot of space in hospitals. Their design also created discomfort for patients with claustrophobia who had to enter the machine’s tunnel-like entrance to be scanned.

Crozier and his team developed smaller and more portable magnets, which can now be found in a new range of mobile MRI machines. When a knee or elbow needs to be scanned, there’s no need for the patient to physically enter the machine. 

These smaller and cheaper machines are now widely used in hospitals and clinics in developing nations. There is also interest from sporting bodies that see the benefits of being able to scan their players to assess if they can continue playing without aggravating or exacerbating an injury.  

In 2005, the University of Queensland formed a company called Magnetica to commercialise the magnets, of which Crozier is the founding scientist and chief technology officer. GE Healthcare has used the magnets in about 250 smaller MRI machines.

Crozier’s latest project is to develop an image-guided therapy to enable an MRI machine to locate and focus a radiation beam directly onto a tumour in real time, reducing the amount of healthy tissue that can be inadvertably irradiated using current methods.

Not surprisingly, Crozier’s work is attracting considerable interest around the world. German scientific instrument maker Bruker is employing some of his developments in radiofrequency engineering. Magnetica is partnering with Japanese magnet maker Jastec and has also been holding talks with a Chinese company.
Crozier sees advantages for researchers in being based in Australia.

“The Australian attitude is that we are very capable innovators,” says Crozier. “I think not being physically integrated into Europe or the US means that we’re not mentally complete followers of theirs. We’re willing to take independent thought down the innovation pathway.

“We’re a small population and we’re under-resourced in terms of getting seed funding to get things off the ground. We have to focus on particular areas and go deeply in that focus. I think that helps as well” he says.

In 2012, Crozier received the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences Clunies Ross Award for his 20 years of contributions to the field of magnetic resonance imaging. The award recognises outstanding achievement in the application of science and technology for the benefit of the wider community. 

It is one of several accolades he has won – he is also a Fellow of the Institute of Physics in the UK as well as The Australian Academy for Technological Sciences and Engineering  – but Crozier says what he most enjoys is seeing his research being used in a clinical setting.

“It’s fantastic,” he says. “It’s just wonderful to meet people who had a good outcome, that have had an early diagnosis as a result of MRI. Whatever issues they’ve had have been caught early enough to be solved, and it is incredibly satisfying to be a small part of that.”