YORK scientists working on ways to improve the effectiveness of the MRI scanners used to detect diseases such as cancer have been awarded a £2.2 million grant.

Prof Simon Duckett and his team at the University of York are developing a technique which should allow the scanners to get much better, more detailed images - and do so more cheaply.

Ultimately, that could mean hospitals having not only better diagnostic scanners - but more of them.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners use strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body.

According to the NHS, the scanners can be used to examine almost any part of the body for signs of disease, including the brain, spinal cord, heart, blood vessels and internal organs.

The stronger the magnetism produced by the scanner, the better the image obtained. The problem is the powerful magnetic fields scanners generate cannot be precisely focussed on the exact area of the body being examined.

That has led to hospitals using more and more powerful scanners to get the images they need to make accurate diagnoses.

Prof Duckett and his team are working on a way of magnetising a chemical known as pyruvate - a common 'fuel' used in the human body. The magnetised pyruvate would be prepared away from the patient, then injected. The diseased area of the body would then pick up the pyruvate and process it - allowing much clearer images to be obtained, using much less powerful scanners than are needed now.

Prof Duckett, who is the director of York’s Centre for Hyperpolarisation in Magnetic Resonance, says there are many potential advantages to the technique, which they have labelled the 'hyperpolarisation battery'.

It could give much clearer, more targeted scans, which might enable doctors to pick up earlier signs of conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, Prof Duckett said.

Patients undergoing cancer treatment could be given repeated scans, to see how effective the treatment was, and whether it needed to be adjusted or changed.

And ultimately, mini scanners could even be developed that could be used in real time in operating theatres during surgery.

The technique also has one other major potential benefit, Prof Duckett said.

Because scanners would not need to use such powerful magnets, hospitals could use much cheaper scanners. "Hospitals could have four systems for the same cost."

The £2.2 million grant from the European Research Council's Advanced Grant Fund will now be used to prove that the system works, Prof Duckett said.

The next stage after that would be to try to make a working model.