Nobel Prizefight

POSTED 23 OCT 2003

1. Noble Nobel?

2. Unraveling the dynamite prize

3. The biggest blunder

A note on lingo:

MR = "magnetic resonance" (a phenomenon that allows measurement of atomic nuclei)

NMR = "nuclear magnetic resonance," AKA "magnetic resonance"

MRI = "magnetic resonance image": a picture made by measuring MR

MR scanner = MRI machine

X-rays were good for imaging bone, but not for soft tissue. That's where MR shines. Left: X-ray technology shows a hint of brain displacement (arrows), a possible tumor. Right: MRI of a 7-year-old child's brain clearly shows a large malignancy (arrows) involving the brain stem and mid-brain. Photos: The National Cancer Institute

Nobel for MRI: "Shameful wrong" or "deeply deserved and long overdue"?

This big honker is a magnetic resonance image (MRI) machine. The mondo donut is a super-powerful magnet that creates the field needed to induce magnetic resonance. The technique is non-invasive, and so far as is known, completely harmless -- unless you are claustrophobic or have an artificial joint... Photo: NASA

Did you catch the full-page ads?
In black and white, Raymond Damadian, one of the pioneers of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in medicine, was telling the Nobel committee that the 2003 awards had ignored one of the inventors of MRI.

Ad says, The Shameful Wrong That Must Be Righted
– from the New York Times, Oct. 10, 2003

That inventor (no false modesty here) was Raymond Damadian himself, a medical doctor who, in June, 1970, used the technique of nuclear magnetic resonance -- now called magnetic resonance or MR -- to distinguish healthy tissue from cancer in mouse specimens.

In March, 1971, Damadian established -- for the first time -- a medical application for MR (see "Tumor Detection..." in the bibliography). The experiment showed that cancer gave off different signals than healthy tissue under magnetic resonance, and Damadian concluded that MRI would become valuable in diagnosis. "The results suggest that this technique may prove useful in the detection of malignant tumors."

At that point, MR, then called nuclear magnetic resonance, had been a tool for physicists and chemists, and it had an honored history: the 1937 discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance won the 1944 Nobel Prize for Physics; the 1952 prize recognized advances in the field.

Fuzzy photo of tumor and clear image of brain with tumor.

Now come the 2003 awards, to Paul Lauterbur, a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Peter Mansfield, of the University of Nottingham (U.K.).

The announcement carried nary a mention of Damadian. Does this represent, as Damadian's ad claims, an "inexcusable disregard for the truth"? Or were his contributions simply not noble enough for a Nobel?

Magnetic primer
By now, you need the one-paragraph Why File summary of magnetic resonance:

When you place some types of atoms in an intense magnetic field, their nuclei line up. If you blast the atoms with radio waves at certain "resonant" frequencies, the nuclei will absorb some energy, and then release it. MR machines detect the timing and frequency of these secondary radio waves. MRIs, magnetic resonance images, are pictures of the body's interior made by computerized manipulation of data produced by magnetic resonance.

Now that you understand everything there is to know about magnetic resonance, does Damadian have a case, or is he simply creating a spectacle?

He does have some powerful backers. In 1998, his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which publishes The Why Files, described him as "one of the inventors of magnetic resonance imaging," and gave him an honorary doctorate.

Bed extends from circular device, bigger than three refrigerators. Others have followed in the same vein. The 2001 MIT Lemelson Award for Lifetime Achievement, described Damadian as "The man who invented the MR scanner..."

Several histories of MR echo this sentiment. For example, "In reality, MR scanning was invented, patented and brought to market largely through the efforts of one man, a medical doctor, Raymond V. Damadian..." (see "The Pioneers ..." in the bibliography).

The 1996 book credited Damadian for:
First thinking about using magnetic resonance to detect cancer in living tissue

Demonstrating that different types of healthy tissues have distinct MR signatures, indicating that MR could distinguish muscle from bone from brain.

Filing the first patent on medical use of MR

Making the first whole-body MR image,

Developing the first commercial MR scanner (Damadian remains CEO of Fonar Corp., which makes MR machines).

Still, nobody has persuaded the Nobel committee to change an award, and as one historian of science wrote, plenty of contributors to major discoveries have found themselves on the cutting room floor of history (see "No Nobel Prize for Whining" in the bibliography).

MRI of head shows yellow brain, red eyeballs. MRI shows the difference between normal and abnormal tissues with stunning clarity. The bright blue area is a metastatic cancer in the brain's occipital lobe. MRI often shows subtle changes missed by other imaging techniques. Photo: NIH

The winner is?
In awarding the 2003 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology to Lauterbur and Mansfield, the Nobel press release said this about their achievements:

Lauterbur "discovered the possibility to create a two-dimensional picture by introducing gradients in the magnetic field. By analysis of the characteristics of the emitted radio waves, he could determine their origin. This made it possible to build up two-dimensional pictures of structures that could not be visualized with other methods."

Mansfield "developed the utilization of gradients in the magnetic field. He showed how the signals could be mathematically analyzed, which made it possible to develop a useful imaging technique. Mansfield also showed how extremely fast imaging could be achievable. This became technically possible within medicine a decade later."

But before there was Lauterbur or Mansfield, there was Damadian, at least as far as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is concerned. In March, 1972, Damadian filed a patent (later granted) for "an apparatus and method of detecting cancer in tissue" that used nuclear magnetic resonance.

How strong is Damadian's case?


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Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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