‘We can complete that puzzle’: MU Health Care taps new diagnostic to improve lung disease treatment

MU Health Care. clinicians sit at a desk with computer monitors displaying lung scans

MU Health Care is just the second hospital in the U.S. to perform lung scans using xenon MRI, a groundbreaking technology that promises to greatly improve providers’ abilities to evaluate lung diseases like cystic fibrosis, asthma, COPD and cancer.

Xenon MRI is the same as traditional MRI diagnostics in that magnets are used to align the body’s atoms in its scans; however, because traditional MRI seeks out the hydrogen atoms in the water found in body tissue, it is less effective at providing a full imaging of the lungs, which are full of air. Xenon MRI overcomes this hurdle by keying on hyperpolarized xenon gas, a non-reactive substance inhaled by patients during the scan and held in the lungs for 10 to 15 seconds.

The result is a more complete picture of the lungs and how they are functioning. Clinicians receive detailed 3D images of the ventilated lung airspaces. The test can also be used to quantify lung microstructure and detailed aspects of lung function such as gas exchange.

MU Health Care physicians say this more-complete picture is a gamechanger in the treatment of lung disease. Previous treatment paths began like a puzzle, where physicians and their patients set out to determine a path toward diagnosis and treatment by working around the edges to build toward a complete picture. But before Xenon MRI, that picture often had gaps, sometimes significant.

“In one patient's case, this may be a single puzzle piece, or in another patient's case this may be half the puzzle,” said pulmonologist Zach Holliday, M.D. “And [xenon MRI] may really shed light on a puzzle that we lost pieces to and now, finally, we can complete that puzzle.”

Adopting the new means of testing is part of MU Health Care’s NextGen Precision Health initiative, which seeks to bring together innovators from across the University of Missouri and the UM System’s three other research universities in pursuit of life-changing precision health advancements.