MRI Pioneer Craig Meyer Elected to National Academy of Inventors

UVA’s Craig Meyer has been named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

There’s a good chance that if you’ve ever needed a magnetic resonance imaging scan – an MRI – you benefited from one of Craig Meyer’s inventions, and that may have made a world of difference in your treatment and prognosis.

In the early 1980s, Meyer saw a story in a magazine about the way this seemingly futuristic machine could safely peer into the body using physics, math and magnets. He was immediately intrigued; and because the technology hit all his goal-oriented buttons of doing good in the world using applied mathematics and science, he jumped at the chance to study the first-ever commercial MRI machine that arrived at Stanford University shortly after he did.

Within just a few short years of Meyer’s work at Stanford, the inquisitive Midwesterner devised a system that sped up image-making and analysis, further paving the way for the huge machines to have realistic applications in clinical settings. This early work resulted in his first patent in 1991.

Today, more than 36 patents and three decades later, Meyer, a professor of biomedical engineering and radiology and medical imaging at the University of Virginia, has been named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors.

“The fundamental idea of trying to create something is very motivating to me, especially something useful,” said Meyer, who’s been teaching at the UVA schools of Medicine and Engineering and Applied Science since 2002, contributing to the University’s significant strengths in medical imaging and driving advancements in MRI technology. “I was really lucky to have chosen to work on MRI, and I’m lucky that there’s so many things you can still work on in this field that are interesting and potentially important. It is a virtual playground for discovery.”

“Craig’s work exemplifies the tremendous gains we can achieve in patients’ diagnoses and treatments when researchers tackle challenges at the intersection between engineering and medicine,” UVA Engineering Dean Jennifer L. West said. “His passion for making quality of life better for all of us is inspiring.”

When a patient is placed inside the cramped confines of an MRI machine, the powerful magnets force many of the protons found in the water that makes up most our cells to align in the same direction, like soldiers in formation. Radio waves are then pulsed through the body, sending those protons out of equilibrium, but still held in tension by the magnets. Then, when the radiofrequency is turned off, sensors in the MRI machine analyze how fast the protons realign to the magnetic draw of the machine, and how much energy they use to do so. Knowing how long it takes different kinds of cells to realign allows the machine to paint a detailed picture of our internal anatomy.

MRIs have traditionally been instrumental in identifying diseases, like cancers and tumors, as well as in orthopedics.

Acquiring the data using the MRI machine is only part of the equation. The next big challenge is turning that data into an image that can be useful for clinicians.

In the beginning, the pictures that resulted from the scans came one line at a time, in much the same way we read a book – a one-dimensional output. The process was slow and meant that patients had to stay virtually motionless for very long periods of time to get pictures that often lacked in detail.

Meyer hypothesized that if the data could instead be collected in a series of interleaved spirals, through multiple directions in what is known to researchers as “k-space,” the acquisition of data could happen quicker and give a more detailed output. That led him to develop and patent various aspects of the technique known as “spiral k-space scanning,” which is five to 10 times faster than the usual method.

This is an overly simplified description of the science around MRI scans and the invention that set Meyer on his future course, but the fundamental result is that his first invention, and all the ones that have followed, have led patient outcomes to improve.

“At the time, MRI seemed like the next big medical imaging method and that it had substantial promise,” he said.

So much of that promise has come from Meyer’s novel process of speeding up scanning and imaging, which has meant that MRI technology could now be applied to new research opportunities.

His lab website describes the applications well: “Rapid MRI acquisition is particularly important in clinical applications that require freezing respiratory, cardiac, or voluntary motion, such as cardiac imaging and pediatric imaging. It also enables real-time guidance of surgery and the monitoring of physiological processes such as the perfusion of blood into tissue.”

In addition to Meyer’s 36 U.S. patents, with several more in the process of being approved, he also owns 13 international patents. “I don’t do this just to get patents, but patents can help facilitate progress to commercialization,” Meyer said. “That is important to get technology out there so it can potentially impact people’s lives.”

“Professor Meyer has been a leading inventor in the field of MRI for more than 30 years,” said Frederick H. Epstein, the Mac Wade Professor and chair of biomedical engineering and professor of radiology and medical imaging. “His early insights into more efficient ways to acquire MRI data were fundamental to transforming MRI from a very slow medical imaging technology to one where images can be acquired in real time. His impact on the entire field of MRI has really been tremendous.”

While there is no doubt that Meyer’s experience and talent have had a tremendous impact on human health, he has had an equal impact on medicine through his decades of teaching and working with graduate students and post-docs, as well as close collaborations with other researchers in the UVA Department of Biomedical Engineering and the School of Medicine.

“We’re here to try to invent new things and to help improve medicine, but I’d add that we’re also here to provide a platform for people to learn and to become inventors themselves,” Meyer said.

In addition to his contributions to teaching and MRI technology and imaging, specifically working with Siemens and their research sites, Meyer spent several years working with his biomedical engineering colleague, professor Silvia Salinas Blemker, and Joseph Hart, a professor of kinesiology at UVA’s School of Education and Human Development and professor of orthopedics at the School of Medicine, to spin off a company called Springbok Analytics. The group was one of the first to receive funding from the UVA-Coulter Translational Research Partnership, a program that awards $700,000 each year to biomedical engineering faculty members and research collaborators from across the University. Together, teams of co-investigators work to develop new technologies that address unmet clinical needs, improve health care and lead to commercially available products.

Springbok Analytics, which officially launched in March 2020 after several years of development, uses artificial intelligence to transform MRIs into 3-D analyses of muscle to support precision medicine and personalized care.

“Dr. Meyer is a true innovator in the field of magnetic resonance imaging. This is a well-deserved recognition of important and influential work – work that has benefited countless patients,” said UVA School of Medicine Dean Dr. Melina R. Kibbe. “We are very proud to see him named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.”

The National Academy of Inventors Fellows Program was established to highlight academic inventors who have used their skills to make an impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society. Meyer, for all of his contributions spanning more than three decades, will be honored in June at a ceremony in Phoenix.

“I am honored that I was selected to become a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors,” he said. “Seldom, but sometimes, do you invent things all by yourself, so this recognition is also a tribute to all the people that I’ve worked with over the years. Inventing is just so much fun.”