Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Medical imaging

MRC funds infrastructure and supports research into the ongoing development of medical imaging, in particular within the areas of neuroscience, cancer, and the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

Partners involved:
Medical Research Council (MRC)

The scope and what we're doing

Medical imaging is used in research and in clinical practice to create visual representations of the interior of the body, using techniques such as:

  • X-ray, computer tomography (CT)
  • ultrasound (US)
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Functional and molecular information can increasingly be provided alongside anatomical information by using techniques such as:

  • electro-encephalography (EEG)
  • magnetoencephalography (MEG)
  • functional MRI (fMRI)
  • positron emission tomography (PET)
  • functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS).

Medical imaging may be applicable across all of MRC’s remit, with major areas of interest including research in neuroscience, cancer, and the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

We have invested heavily in imaging research over recent years, including:

  • the provision of 7 Tesla (7T) MRI infrastructure, including three new 7T scanners, partly funded through the Clinical Research Infrastructure (CRI) initiative
  • support for infrastructure, innovation and implementation in PET-MRI research.

Together with significant investments from other research councils and other research funders, investment from MRC has increased the number of, and accessibility to, imaging modalities for medical research.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Ultra-high field MRI using scanners equipped with 7T magnets is an area of intensive research and development internationally, representing the cutting edge of biomedical imaging in humans. Over the last decade, 7T MRI scanners have evolved from bespoke research systems into clinical research tools within the reach of the broader imaging community. 7T MRI has greatly enhanced the range of anatomical, functional and metabolic features that can be visualised in the intact body, and particularly in the brain.

MRC has invested in new 7T scanners in partnership with:

  • University of Cambridge (CRI, 2014)
  • Cardiff University (CRI, 2014)
  • University of Glasgow (Glasgow and Clyde Valley City Deal, 2015).

We also supported the refurbishment of existing 7T facilities at University of Nottingham and upgraded the 3T MRI scanner at the Dementia Research Scanner Centre, University College London.

To support the collaborative working of all the UK’s 7T MRI sites, including MRC-funded sites and the 7T scanners at University of Oxford and King’s College London, MRC has funded a partnership grant for a UK 7T Network. Richard Bowtell from the University of Nottingham is the principal investigator for this £1.05 million grant, which was awarded in 2015.

The network will share expertise, build capacity and develop harmonised approaches to data acquisition, sharing and analysis.

Read about UK7T Network: developing the ultra-high field MRI platform for biomedical research on Gateway to Research.

Hyperpolarised MRI

Hyperpolarisation (HP) techniques have the potential to improve MRI sensitivity for the diagnosis and management of various diseases. HP techniques can allow imaging of tissue concentrations of a wide range of substances, such as dynamic nuclear polarisation using carbon-13 to label either drugs or simple metabolites.

Progress towards clinical translation has been made in lung imaging using HP gas MRI with helium and xenon isotopes. HP xenon MRI is also used in brain imaging and biosensors.

MRC has funded:

  • an upgrade of the HP gases and proton MRI facilities at the University of Sheffield for clinical lung imaging and the creation of a national hyperpolarised gas imaging facility for collaborating institutions without access to this technology. James Wild from the University of Sheffield is the principal investigator for this £7.5 million grant, which was awarded in 2015. You can find out more on Gateway to Research
  • the development of advanced hyperpolarisation techniques at the universities of Leeds and York, including development of a new imaging method called Signal Amplification by Reversible Exchange (SABRE) that has the potential to increase the signal in an MRI image by up to 100,000 times. Sven Plein is the principal investigator on this £0.9 million grant, which was awarded in 2015. You can find out more on Gateway to Research
  • a 13C hyperpolariser (University of Cambridge).

Positron Emission Tomography (PET)

PET is a nuclear medicine imaging technique that operates at the molecular level and allows researchers to observe, for example, metabolic processes. PET works by tracking the radioactivity released from molecules of interest (such as glucose) that have been radiolabelled to form radiotracers or radioligands. Development of radiotracers and radioligands is a major scientific endeavour. PET imaging can be combined with anatomical information, for example, from CT or MR imaging. The major uses of PET include neuroscience (to provide quantitative pharmacokinetic and dynamic data), cancer (to obtain images of tumours for diagnosis and radiochemistry) and cardiovascular disease.

PET radiotracers are used throughout the translational medicine developmental pathway, for diagnosis, to stratify populations, as a tool for drug development and to gain a better understanding of disease biology. Challenges associated with PET imaging include the need to use radiation, relative complexity compared with other imaging modalities, cost and the invasive nature of PET studies.

To support PET-based research in the UK, MRC has previously worked with partners from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI).

You can find guidance and advice on the:


PET-MRI is a hybrid technology that delivers simultaneous MRI and PET images from a single machine, providing information on anatomy, blood flow and metabolism in one scan. Through the CRI Initiative MRC has funded:

  • five PET-MRI scanners within the Dementia Platform UK (DPUK) imaging network, at University of Cambridge, University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London, University of Manchester and Newcastle University
  • equipment for radiochemistry at University of Cambridge, Cardiff University, Imperial College London and Newcastle University
  • a partnership grant to support coordination between seven UK PET-MRI centres working in the field of dementia research. Karl Herholz from the University of Manchester is the principal investigator on this £0.9 million grant. You can find out more on Gateway to Research.

MRC review of PET imaging

In 2017 MRC carried out a Review of PET within the medical imaging research landscape, a field in which the UK is leading the world. The review surveyed clinical and research use of PET, the likely future demand for PET, and bottlenecks such as capacity and costs.

Perceived challenges for medical imaging research using PET in the UK include:

  • efficient development and supply of PET radiotracers
  • training, recruitment and retention of radiochemists, chemists, modellers, cyclotron engineers
  • the availability of people with good manufacturing process (GMP), quality assurance (QA) expertise and GMP facilities.

MRC’s vision for the future of PET in the UK includes building on significant past investment:

  • addressing capacity and resourcing issues in partnership with, for example, the NHS
  • facilitating the adoption of new PET technologies, such as total-body PET
  • broadening PET awareness and use outside of neuroscience and oncology, for example in infection, mitochondrial biology, inflammation, and cardiology.

Magnetoencephalography (MEG)

MEG is a functional neuroimaging technique for mapping brain activity in which very sensitive magnetometers are used to record magnetic fields produced by the electrical activity of the brain. The main applications of MEG are clinical investigations and cognitive neuroscience research.

MRC has funded a partnership grant to build multi-site clinical research capacity in MEG. Krishna Singh from Cardiff University is the principal investigator on this £0.8 million joint MRC and EPSRC grant, which was awarded in 2013. You can find more information on Gateway to Research. This project brings together eight UK centres in Cardiff, Oxford, London, Cambridge, Aston, Nottingham, York and Glasgow, through academic networking activities, training programmes, joint studentships and the establishment of unified protocols for data acquisition, analysis and storage.

Translational research

To advance translational research, researchers must seek ways to strengthen industry-academic collaboration in the context of international competition.

In essence, MRC is seeking to facilitate better interaction between industry and academia, and expand the use of PET technology throughout the UK. The goal is to make UK PET imaging research more internationally competitive and to ensure that scientific innovation is implanted in research and clinical practice.

Who to contact

Maya Bronfeld


Last updated: 14 August 2023

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