“China Youth Daily” - Venturing into the Summit of Technology, Lighting up the 'Black Holes' in the Lungs

time:   2024-02-27 15:30    hits:758

    "The development of medical technology requires a group of people to engage in disruptive and innovative techniques, possessing the courage to explore new frontiers in science. Only then can China's 'trump card' in technology be unveiled at the peak of technology and occupy the commanding heights of technology." From the laboratory of 'six-floor tiles' to internationally renowned laboratories, from solo efforts to the assistance of over a hundred people in a team, Xin Zhou, the president of the Innovation Academy for Precision Measurement Science and Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has embarked on decades of exploration.

    In 2023, the team successfully developed the world's only approved clinical multi-nuclei magnetic resonance imaging system (hereinafter referred to as the "system") that can be used for gas imaging, achieving non-invasive, non-radiation detection and quantification of lung structure and function. Visual evaluation provides new instruments and methods for early screening and treatment evaluation of lung diseases.

    In traditional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) testing, the image of human lungs is like a "black hole": the lungs are cavity tissue, and the density of its water protons is not enough for imaging.

    Over the years, the "exploration" of "black holes in the lungs" has become a core issue of concern to the medical community. How to further understand the microstructure of the lungs and conduct a non-destructive, quantitative, and accurate assessment of ventilation and air-blood exchange functions is a problem that scientists around the world want to solve.

    In this "Lung Black Hole Battle", on August 16, 2023, the innovative medical device developed by this team, the human lung multi-nuclei magnetic resonance imaging system was approved for sale by the State Food and Drug Administration. On January 30, 2024, at the second session of the 14th Hubei Provincial People's Congress, the achievement was included in the Hubei Provincial Government Work Report.

    The latest report released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a subsidiary of the World Health Organization, shows that in 2022, there were approximately 20 million new cases of cancer worldwide, with around 9.7 million deaths. Among these figures, lung cancer had the highest proportion.

    "Currently, in China, there is a large population of patients suffering from lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, and other respiratory conditions," Xin Zhou explained. The barriers to early detection of lung function damage are high. Many patients miss the optimal treatment window due to late diagnosis, resulting in worsening conditions and posing a threat to their health and lives.

    Now, in clinical practice, patients simply inhale a breath of 'xenon gas.' Utilizing xenon gas, a non-radioactive, non-toxic, and inhalable inert gas, as a contrast agent, and with the assistance of the independently developed 'medical xenon gas generator' at the research institute, the magnetic resonance signal can be enhanced by over 50,000 times, illuminating the 'black holes' in the lungs. ''Lung gas imaging allows doctors to visually assess lung ventilation, turning the 'invisible' into the 'visible','' said Haidong Li, associate researcher at the Innovation Academy for Precision Measurement Science and Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

    "Visibility" is of great significance to doctors. Previously, doctors could only observe the lung structure through CT in clinical practice, but could not accurately judge the gas circulation. Now with the help of the system, the ventilation function of the lungs in different regions can be displayed. In the context of clinical diagnosis for patients, for instance, some patients may exhibit a lack of ventilation in the upper portion of the lungs, while others may present ventilation deficiencies in the lower portion. Therefore, lung gas imaging provides an accurate 'view' for lung volume reduction surgery.

    After continuous upgrades, the system not only achieves 'seeing' but also attains 'seeing well'. The team has made comprehensive breakthroughs in ultra-fast lung gas magnetic resonance imaging technology, human multi-nuclei magnetic resonance imaging technology, and other areas. This effectively resolves the significant challenge of low gas magnetic resonance signals in lung detection that previously hindered imaging.

    The system also plays a crucial role in tracking and assessing the sequelae of COVID-19 survivors. While hospitals previously relied on the volume of 'white lung' to set discharge standards, the system can comprehensively identify issues such as ventilation function deficiencies in patients. This provides doctors with a more comprehensive image for diagnosis.

    Haidong Li made an analogy: more than 10 years ago, photos taken by mobile phones would have pixels, etc., but now mobile phone photos can achieve high-definition mode. This system upgrade allows the "black holes in the lungs" in clinical images to be viewed with more "high definition".

    The equipment is currently in use at numerous top-tier hospitals across China, including the Chinese People's Liberation Army General Hospital, Shanghai Changzheng Hospital, and Tongji Hospital in Wuhan. It has conducted follow-up visits for over 3,000 COVID-19 patients.

    From the laboratory to clinical application, the team has traveled this way for more than five years. Haidong Li recalled that before putting it into application, the research team needed to constantly adjust research ideas based on feedback from clinicians. This is not an easy task for scientific researchers. In the laboratory, the scientific research goal is to achieve high-precision technology, but when the technology is applied to hospitals, it is also necessary to consider issues such as operational convenience and patient friendliness during system use.

    A series of user-friendly technologies have been integrated into the system. Previously, patients had to inhale from two bags of gas sequentially before undergoing imaging examinations. However, for patients who couldn't hold their breath for a long time or had difficulty inhaling, these steps posed certain challenges. Subsequently, the team optimized the system's process so that patients only need to inhale 'xenon gas' once, and holding their breath for less than 10 seconds enables a complete 3D scan of the lungs.

    "Scientists must diligently accumulate knowledge, master core technologies, and achieve scientific innovation to drive industry transformation and enhance the well-being of the people." Today, in Xin Zhou's team, the average age of members is 36 years old, covering various disciplines such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biomedical sciences, and information science. "We must wholeheartedly build a strong young team. Only when young people think outside the box and conduct research unconventionally will continuous innovation be generated."

    "This globally leading technology is still relatively 'new' to most patients," Xin Zhou remarked. He hopes that in the future, the technology can 'pick up pace,' reaching hospitals across the country and becoming a comprehensible and practical examination standard listed in the average person's medical check-up report. This, he believes, will provide 'insightful eyes' to tackle the challenges in diagnosing and treating lung diseases.