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Father of Modern MRI Technology Visits USC

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul C. Lauterbur, Center for Advanced Study professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois and Urbana-Champaign, addressed an audience March 23 at the USC School of Pharmacy’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

A second lecture was held March 24 for a group of students and faculty from the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s division of cardiovascular medicine.

Lauterbur received the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his significant contribution to the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in medical research and diagnostics. He shared the prize with Sir Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham in England.

In his presentation titled “From Silicon-based Life to MRI and Back,” Lauterbur illustrated the progress of his work and the number of obstacles he had to surmount in his scientific career.

“It was an honor to have a scientist of Dr. Lauterbur’s caliber come and speak to USC faculty and students,” said Dean Timothy Chan of the USC School of Pharmacy. “His groundbreaking research accomplishments have had a tremendous impact on advancements in medical research and practice worldwide.”

Lauterbur was among the first scientists to use nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) in his study of molecules, solutions and solids, and he was the first researcher to develop new approaches that allowed the application of the NMR technology to medicine. This led to the development of the modern MRI scanner, which is often the method of choice for diagnosing injuries and medical conditions without any invasive manipulation.

MRI technology works by placing the body in a powerful magnetic field that causes the nuclei of atoms to align. Pulsing radio waves cause them to resonate, sending out radio signals. The signals are collected, interpreted by a computer and assembled into a picture somewhat similar to an X-ray image.

In comparison to X-ray and CT images, much less energy is required, no ionizing radiation is required and no permanent harmful side effects of MRI have been demonstrated to date.

“The ability to study the functional aspects of living systems, including humans, has changed dramatically our ability to understand the nature of many diseases and how to deal with them,” said Distinguished Professor Walter Wolf of the School of Pharmacy. “It was Paul’s vision, combined with his dedication and perseverance, that made it possible to translate the scientific principles of NMR into tools that allowed noninvasive studies in humans and in animals.”

“After knowing Paul for more than 25 years, he hasn’t lost any of his great intelligence and wit,” said Gerald Pohost, professor of cardiovascular medicine in the Keck School of Medicine. “The story of how he discovered modern MRI technology is long remembered. Its impact in the diagnosis of neurologic, orthopedic, cardiovascular and cancer diseases has been tremendous.”

Lauterbur received his B.S. degree from Case Institute of Technology in 1951 and a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1962. After many years at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, he joined the faculty at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1985.

His current research interests are in chemistry, especially its role in the origin of life.

The USC School of Pharmacy hosts a Distinguished Lecture each month to encourage the exchange of ideas and include participation of the local scientific community. Invited speakers are leaders in their respective fields and represent a varied perspective regarding academic research.

Father of Modern MRI Technology Visits USC

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