Developing the Next Generation of MRI Technologies

Zhi-Pei Liang (in back) is shown with members of his research group, including, from left, Maojing Fu, Bo Zhao, Fan Lam, Anthony Christodoulou, and Chao Ma.
Zhi-Pei Liang (in back) is shown with members of his research group, including, from left, Maojing Fu, Bo Zhao, Fan Lam, Anthony Christodoulou, and Chao Ma.

Zhi-Pei Liang is co-chair of a Beckman Institute research theme, president of an IEEE society, and is considered one of the world’s premier researchers in the field of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). But when it comes to taking credit, Liang is quick to point to others, principally the students in his research group and the late Paul Lauterbur, his mentor and winner of the Nobel Prize for inventing MRI.

Zhi-Pei Liang is co-chair of a Beckman Institute research theme, president of an IEEE society, and his name adorns numerous awards and patents. He is also considered one of the world’s premier researchers in the field of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an area where his group has made key advances, including for example, developing a technique that enables real-time imaging of a beating heart.

But when it comes to taking credit, Liang is quick to point to others, principally the students in his research group and the late Paul Lauterbur, his mentor and winner of the Nobel Prize for inventing MRI. Lauterbur and Liang co-authored a seminal engineering textbook on MRI titled Principles of Magnetic Resonance Imaging: A Signal Processing Perspective, that came out in 1999, four years before Lauterbur won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in the field.

Liang was lured to the University of Illinois in 1989 because of Lauterbur, who was his good friend for almost 20 years and a role model as a faculty member, researcher, and person.

“He was one of a kind,” Liang said. “But you had to be very close to him to truly appreciate what kind of person he was, and what kind of scientist he was. He was not only a genius but also a wonderful, caring person. He always had a unique way to look at a scientific problem, and came up with very creative solutions. He was no doubt the best scientist that I have ever met.”

The students in Liang’s research group and those he teaches as a Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering also guide his efforts. His students have gone on to prominent positions in industry and academia while current and recent members of his group have won important paper awards and honors in the area of MR imaging research.

Our goal is to develop new generations of MRI technology to provide unprecedented capabilities for structural, physiological, and functional imaging. – Zhi-Pei Liang

“It is very satisfying to be able to impact the younger generation positively, be they your own children or students,” Liang said. “I feel just as happy as they do when they make good research progress and receive awards and recognitions for their hard work.

“Sometimes,” he added with a laugh, “I feel happier than they do.”

Liang is Co-chair of the Institute’s Integrative Imaging research theme, and leader of the MR Engineering Research group, which has a focus on developing methods for optimal acquisition, and reconstruction and processing of MR images, with applications toward functional neuroimaging, real-time cardiac imaging, and cancer imaging.

Liang describes his research this way: “Nuclear spins are one of the most interesting quantum-mechanical systems. Using the signals generated from these systems, MRI has revolutionized biology and medicine over the last three decades. However, current MRI technology has not yet fully exploited the potential of the nuclear magnetic resonance phenomenon to unravel the mysteries of biology and life. Our goal is to develop new generations of MRI technology to provide unprecedented capabilities for structural, physiological, and functional imaging.”

A key goal is developing MRI technology that can, for example, visualize disease for diagnosis at a stage when treatment can be most effective.       

“Imaging technology has been traditionally focused on capturing biological anatomical information,” Liang said. “But if a disease is already to the level that you can see structural changes, that’s perhaps too late.

“One of our research goals is to provide new imaging capabilities to enable physiological and biochemical imaging in high resolution so that we can effectively characterize the physiological states of a biological system and thus detect a disease at very early stages. Achieving this goal could fundamentally affect the way we perform health care as we don’t have to view a biological system as having only two states, normal or diseased.”

The work has been funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and involves the areas of physics, engineering, and biology. Liang said the courses he teaches in topics involving MRI, signal processing, and quantum mechanics prepare his students well for advancing MRI technology.

“My students are well-trained in both MRI physics and signal processing theory and algorithms,” he said. “They are also capable of carrying out MRI experiments on biological systems. These skills and expertise uniquely position them to tackle challenging MRI problems.”

Liang gave as one example a project in which his group used MR physics and signal processing theory to develop a new imaging technique that can produce high-quality cardiac images from a very small number of measurements, enabling four-dimensional cardiac imaging. That work resulted in another grant from the NIH and two best paper awards.

Students from Liang’s group have won many honors and awards, including the 2009 Isidor I. Rabi award to Diego Hernando, and 2010 Best Student Paper awards from IEEE-ISBI and IEEE-EMBC to Justin Haldar, and the IEEE-EMBC 2011 Best Student Paper Award to Anthony Christodoulou.

Liang’s professional duties include serving a two-year term as President of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society in January. He is also a Fellow of the IEEE, the ISMRM, and the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering. To read more about Liang’s awards, click here.

The awards and his academic and research accomplishments are some lofty heights for someone who came to this country in 1983 as part of the first generation of students from China to study in America. Liang said his career really took off when, after earning a Ph.D. at Case Western, he chose a postdoctoral job at Illinois and working with Lauterbur over a faculty position at Syracuse.

“It’s kind of funny. My interest in MRI was because of a lecture that Paul gave at Case,” Liang said. “Apparently, he saw something in me, what he was looking for.”

Liang is currently working on a second edition of the textbook that he and Lauterbur co-authored many years ago. Lauterbur’s influence and the admiration Liang has for his mentor are still evident when he speaks of him in 2011.

“His scientific philosophy and influence were just enormous,” Liang said. “He was really very visionary.”

Liang is carrying on that vision today with his own research and through the students he mentors.