New portable brain scanner, worn like a helmet, has huge potential for both public health benefit and commercial development. Where nonprofit research and IP laws sometime go hand in hand.

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The News:

British scientists have built a lightweight and highly sensitive brain imaging device that can be worn as a helmet, allowing the patient to move about naturally. Results from tests of the scanner showed that patients were able to stretch, nod and even drink tea or play table tennis while their brain activity was being recorded, millisecond by millisecond, by the magnetoencephalography (MEG) system.

Researchers who developed the device and published their results in the journal Nature said they hoped the new scanner would improve research and treatment for patients who can’t use traditional fixed MEG scanners, such as children with epilepsy, babies, or patients with disorders like Parkinson’s disease.

“This has the potential to revolutionize the brain imaging field and transform the scientific and clinical questions that can be addressed with human brain imaging,” said Gareth Barnes, a professor at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Neuroimaging at University College London (UCL), who co-led the work.

Current MEG scanners are cumbersome and weigh as much as half a ton, partly because the sensors they use to measure the brain’s magnetic field need to be kept very cold–at minus 269 degrees Celsius, Barnes’ team explained. They also run into difficulties when patients are unable to stay very still–very young children or patients with movement disorders for example–since even a 5-millimeter movement can mean the images are unusable.

In the helmet scanner, the researchers overcame these problems by using quantum sensors, which are lightweight, work at room temperature and can be placed directly onto the scalp–increasing the amount of signal they are able to pick up.

Matt Brookes, who worked with Barnes and built the prototype at Nottingham university, said that as well as overcoming the challenge of some patients being unable to stay still, the wearable scanner offers new possibilities in measuring peoples’ brain function during real-world tasks and social interactions. (Ref: Reuters)

Steve’s Take:

According to the BBC account of this amazing new development, scientists in Nottingham have “invented” a new type of brain scanner that can be worn on the head, allowing patients to move around while being scanned.

The word “invented” has an ocean of legal significance and the fact that the MEG helmet is capturing so much positive juice in the press means there are potentially mega-dollars in the offing for the original inventor and whoever first gains a patent on the new IP technology.

To recap, the device records the tiny magnetic fields generated by the brain. The researchers say it could “revolutionize” brain imaging. Writing in Nature, they showed it could pinpoint the part of the brain responsible for activities like nodding, drinking tea and playing bat and ball(or at least that’s what the Brits call it).

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) has been around for decades, but conventional scanners are large, weighing half a ton. The UK has 10 MEG scanners and their use is largely limited to research. Part of the problem with them is that subjects have to keep completely still.

Anyone who’s ever had a brain scan in a hospital, for example, knows how seemingly endless the 60-minute ordeal seems to take. And it’s not just the ear-splitting noise that’s excruciating but the requirement of remaining as still as humanly possible, all the while trapped in the cramped, claustrophobic capsule, that makes it an experience to forget immediately. Unfortunately, that is simply impossible, as I am re-experiencing my MRI last brain scan as I pen this.

On the other hand, “behaving naturally” while the brain scan does its thing? Now that’s a really great idea.

Yes, the prototype (mounted in a 3D-printed helmet) does look like something out of “Friday the 13th” and needs some design work to avoid frightening children and some adults. But consider the enormous upside.

The sensors work at room temperature and can be placed directly on the scalp, which greatly increases the signal they can pick up. The wearable scanner means that babies, children and people with movement disorders can have their brain activity measured.

Matt Brookes, physicist, who leads the study at Nottingham University said: “In terms of mapping brain activity, this represents a steep change. Neuroscientists will be able to envisage a whole new world of experiments where we try to work out what the brain is doing but whilst a person is behaving naturally and moving around.”

Now, as for the commercial implications of this story, the research was funded by the nonprofit, London-based Wellcome Trust and developed at the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre, University of Nottingham and the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging. It is part of a five-year Wellcome-funded project which has, “the potential to revolutionize the world of human brain imaging,” according to a U of Nottingham release.

Andrew Welchman, Wellcome’s Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health, said: “MEG is a really valuable tool in neuroscience, but current scanners are still not widely used as they’re expensive, cumbersome and their ‘one-size-fits-all’ design doesn’t work for many patients.”

And here is the quote that got my proprietary/profit-seeking attention:

Welchman says, “This new scanner is exciting not only because it overcomes those issues and will help improve our understanding of how the brain works but also because it has huge potential for clinical use.”

You see the point. This new wearable scanner, “has huge potential,” laudable for the greater good of the public but also words beloved by Wall Street and venture capitalists everywhere.

So, where does the revered Wellcome Trust’s research funding come into play?

Turns out the Wellcome Trust has some rules. Put simply, it has a specific approach in managing intellectual property, “to maximize public health benefit.” According to the Trust, its mission is:

“to promote access to research results to the greatest extent possible so that they may form the basis of future discoveries and lead to public benefit.”

The Trust, “recognizes that intellectual property protection (patents in particular) is a valuable tool to provide incentives for the translation of research results into products that benefit public health. To achieve its aims, the Trust believes that intellectual property issues must be approached carefully in light of individual circumstances.”

Over a number of years, Trust-funded research has produced a wide spectrum of potentially patentable research results that required different intellectual property management approaches. For projects that involve production of large-scale datasets, the Trust has taken an approach that focuses on releasing data as quickly and freely as possible in order to facilitate further research. The research outcomes from these projects were generally regarded as too early on the research spectrum to have translation, or “bench to bedside,” potential.

In cases where Trust-funded researchers have approached the Trust for its consent to exploit Trust-funded IP that does have translation potential:

“the Trust has agreed but recommended particular conditions, such as non-exclusive licensing and reserving rights for research use, to ensure that the patent is exploited to achieve the Trust’s charitable aims.”

Bottom Line:

Steve's Take: I will be keeping an eye out for the medical device company that succeeds in obtaining and commercializing the #Intellectualproperty rights behind the wearable #MRI helmet Click To Tweet

The collaborative team from the University of Nottingham and University College London will be taking this MEG research to the Royal Society’s summer science exhibition in July with their “Quantam Sensing the Brain” exhibit. The MEG helmet will be available for people to see and try. They will also be demonstrating live brain imaging to visitors in their “Brain Room” where they can play brain games where people can control computer games by “thinking.”

I’m ready to have a customized 3-D-printed MEG helmet put in the production queue today–ahead of my next annual brain scan. Of course, I realize this probably isn’t feasible yet, but in my opinion, the day is coming where some of us might qualify for the wearable version.

And whichever medical device company succeeds first in obtaining and then commercializing the associated IP rights, I’ll be keeping an eye out and will keep you apprised of what, in Dr. Welchman’s view, should “have huge potential for clinical use.” Translation: Enormous upside as a business opportunity.

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