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Rochester Innovators Series: Richard Ehman

Rochester Innovators Series: Richard Ehman

Dr. Richard Ehman is a Mayo Clinic radiologist, researcher and medical technology pioneer whose body of work includes some of the most important advancements in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). With more than 40 patents to his name, many of Dr. Ehman’s inventions are now used in medical practices across the world. 

As a result of his continued commitment to innovation, Dr. Ehman was recognized last month as a National Academy of Inventors Fellow for 2016. The distinction — awarded to inventors whose work has been judged to have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and welfare of society — is the highest professional distinction given solely to academic inventors.

“It’s a wonderful honor because it recognizes something that in the past we haven’t paid much attention to in the medical field, or in general, which is the importance of inventions in contributing to health care,” says Dr. Ehman. “So I’m just thrilled to have been recognized in this way.”

With early interests in both physics and medicine, Dr. Ehman’s work reached a pivotal point during a research assignment at the University of California-San Francisco. He had just completed medical school in his native country of Canada, and was looking for a way to combine his curiosities into a single area of focus.

“Those were the very earliest days of the MRI,” he recalls. “So they had a prototype scanner there, and I quickly realized that this was going to be a really important thing in medicine.”

The problem was, in the early 1980s, few places were experimenting with the technology in a medical setting. Fortunately though, Dr. Ehman soon learned that Mayo Clinic was one of them. Though the machine was primitive by today’s standards, it served as a starting point for what would be a series of breakthroughs that forever changed how we diagnose medical problems.

“During that time, because MRI was so new, if we could understand anything about it, it was new knowledge,” he says. “Nobody who designed the technology really had any clue what it was going to do, or what these images were going to show, or why things looked the way they did … so it was a very exciting time.”

He adds, “So that’s all about timing in medicine; timing in what you do in your career.”
 
In addition to his research responsibilities, Dr. Ehman serves as a member of both Mayo’s Board of Trustees and Board of Governors. He is also the founder and CEO of Resoundant Inc., a Mayo spinoff company that uses advanced medical imaging technology — known as magnetic resonance elastography (MRE) — for the detection of liver damage. 
 
We recently had the privilege to sit down with Dr. Ehman to learn more about his work, and to find out what advice he has for the next generation of innovators. 

Minor edits were made for flow and clarity.

Photo by William Forsman

Photo by William Forsman

Let's go back to the beginning of your career. What led you to get into medical imaging?

In those early days, there was a revolution that was in the making — and that was the application of computers to process signals. Up until that time, if you had a signal that was generated by any system, you had to basically do manual calculations. With the introduction of computers, and something in particular called the Cooley–Tukey Fast Fourier Transform — which you’ve probably never heard of — but which in fact has been called the most important algorithm of our lifetime. In other words, this is digital signal processing technology that the computer made possible, and that really make possible modern communications and almost every aspect of technology, including imaging … So I saw this, and thought ‘my gosh, this is going to be really, really important in medicine.’

What did those early days at Mayo look like?

We would come in during the evenings because there was only one scanner, and it was used for clinical work during the day. We’d run all kinds of crazy experiments — things like, setting up a clothesline that went into the scanner and we could move objects in and out during the scan, so we could look at the effects of motion. 
 
So we developed some technologies in those early days that ended up being very useful in MRI and now used widely in exams. And as a result of that, I built up a research program over the years. Now, I really — outside of some administrative and leadership duties — my main job here at Mayo Clinic is to lead a research team that’s focused on further developing magnetic resonance imaging, or imaging in general.

Looking at the MRI scanner now, what can you point to as one of your main contributions?

In the early days, Dr. [Joel] Felmlee and I saw that when you had any picture that went through a cross-section of a big blood vessel, there were terrible things we called artifacts — image degradation caused by the flow of blood. And nobody really understood why that occurred, and it obliterated every area of the image and it made it very hard to see the blood vessel. We studied that phenomenon — we spent quite a few evenings at St. Marys where the scanner was — and we came up with an idea on how to eliminate that problem. It was something we called spatial presaturation. Basically what it did was it fired radiofrequency energy into the system to decrease the signal coming from flowing blood. That technology is used in essentially every scan that is ever done around the world every day.

Remember, those are very early days. To make that happen, our tools were very primitive, so we had to reserve to some kitchen table-type efforts to make it work. But the interesting thing about research in our area is that it gets translated very rapidly. Because let’s say it’s a drug, it’s going to take 10 or 15 years before that drug will be to the benefit of patients. But in the case of technology developed like this, we really proved that it worked in the summertime of the early 80s and we took it to one of the major manufacturers of scanners, and it was announced and available within six months for patient care.

The MRI, as we have now, is an amazing technology that has essentially been invented by its users. Because the people who really understood the problems were the people who were using it. So it was introduced by companies, by industrial research, but really many of the most important advances were discovered because a user saw some problem and said, ‘my god there’s a problem there. Can I figure out a way, based on physics, to solve that problem?’

IN addition to being a researcher, you are also an ENTREPRENEUR. In your opinion, WHat does Rochester need to do for DMC to be successful?

We have to be a little bit patient because it takes time to ramp up. We started five years ago to build a local ecosystem of startup companies and so on. It takes time to establish that. So all the things that could happen around this amazing institution, that aren’t part of the institution, take time to establish. And furthermore, the thing I will say that I’m really serious about, is we also need to be patient with ourselves; which is to say, when we’re on a new pathway, as we are with the Mayo Clinic, inevitably things will crop up that were unexpected, that we didn’t think of, and we need to understand that this is the road we’re on and we’re going to get there eventually, but we have to be patient and not get upset if it’s not going exactly the way we expected it to. We need to solve the problems and move on.

You have been here for 3 decades now. WHat are your thoughts on how the city has changed?

[My wife and I] loved Rochester from the very beginning to where it is now. It’s amazing how it’s developed, especially in the last five years or so: the university campus downtown, the development of a more vibrant downtown community, the exciting aspects of this startup economy that’s going on. These are just wonderful things for our community, and we’re so happy to see them happening.

What advice would you give to the next generation of researchers, inventors and ENTREPRENEURS? 

Number one, timing is important. And pick an area that you want to be doing something creative and different. Pick an area that isn’t highly crowded. Try to find something where you can solve problems with something that is new. Don’t think just because there’s a thousand people in an area, that’s the place to be. You need to foster whatever it takes to be creative and intuitive, and understand what it is you’re doing.

The other aspect is, you need to seek out areas at the boundaries of different disciplines. Rather than being in the center of an area, be kind of at the boundaries where different areas of knowledge intersect with each other — because that’s where the exciting new things will come. And finally, one of the most important things to being a researcher or a clinician or an inventor is to keep things in perspective — and most of all, have fun with what you do. Because if you’re not having fun, you can’t be creative and it’s not going to be a good career for you.

Rochester Innovators is a nine-part series being published in partnership with Destination Medical Center.

Cover photo by William Forsman

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