Laser Vision: Trifon Laskaris’ MRI Research Helped Revolutionize Brain Surgery, Medical Imaging

May 13, 2013

In 1990, Harvard radiologist and former brain surgeon Dr. Ferenc Jolesz developed a medical procedure that involved guiding a laser beam to a brain tumor through a fiber optic strand inserted in a patient’s skull. Jolesz would use the beam’s intense heat to kill it. But there was a problem. When he turned on the heat, he could not see exactly where it was going. “It was like trying to evaporate an apple seed inside a whole apple without cutting it,” says the Budapest-born Jolesz. “The patient has a small hole in the skull, but you don’t see anything when the laser is on. If you don’t deliver enough heat, you will only dent the seed. If you deliver too much, you’ll make a big hole in the apple. To treat safely and effectively, you have to see what the laser is doing.”

Jolesz thought that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which can see inside the body and also detect heat, could help. With the right machine he would be able to visualize temperature changes during the surgery and monitor the tumor treatment with heat. But he ran into another problem: such a machine did not exist.

Trifon Laskaris holds 200 patents. He helped revolutionize medical imaging.

A GE executive introduced Jolesz to GE engineer and medical imaging pioneer Trifon Laskaris. “Trifon designed a magnetic resonance machine (MRI) that was open vertically,with two magnetic rings like a double donut,” Jolesz says “We could image the patient and operate at the same time. Not only laser procedures could be done, but all types of open surgeries.”

Jolesz says that more than two decades later, Laskaris’ design “is still the best configuration” for magnetic resonance imaging during surgery. Jolesz and other doctors at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital have used it for more than 3,500 surgeries, including 1,400 craniotomies, brain biopsies and other neurosurgery procedures. Today, intraoperative MRI is widely used in neurosurgery and in other procedures.

Laskaris received a dozen patents for his work on the Brigham machine. He now holds 200 U.S. patents, a feat matched only by a handful of GE inventors. “Trifon’s work speaks for itself,” says Mark Little, head of GE Global Research and the company’s chief technology officer. “Without his decades of dedicated research into superconducting magnets, MRI technology would not be where it is today, a mainstay of hospitals around the world.”

Laskaris says that he liked playing with gadgets since he was a small boy growing up in Athens, Greece. “My father was a high school teacher and my mother was a seamstress,” he says. “One day her sewing machine broke down. I was just six years old, but I connected the pulleys, installed the little motor and put in the switches.”

Laskaris studied engineering at the National University of Athens. In the 1966, he answered a call from GE and came to the U.S. “At the time there was a big U.S. space program and many American engineers were going to NASA,” Laskaris says. “That drained a lot of talent from the industry.”

At GE, Laskaris started developing software simulating cooling flows inside massive power generators for nuclear power plants. But he quickly moved to GE Global Research (GRC) and started working on magnets and superconductivity, a physical phenomenon that drops electrical resistance to zero in extremely cold metals. “When you power up a supercooled magnet, it can produce the same magnetic field for a thousand years with no more power required. You can do so many cool things with it,” he laughs.

Things like building an MRI machine. In 1983, a team of GRC engineers developed the world’s first full-body MRI, and Laskaris helped design the machine’s 1.5 tesla magnet. “We started by imaging grapefruits,” he says. But his magnet has since become the industry standard. Today, there are some 22,000 1.5 tesla MRI machines working around the world, generating 9,000 medical images every hour, or 80 million scans per year.

But Laskaris, now 69 years old, is pushing on. Liquid helium used to cool down the magnets is becoming scarce and his MR team is working on designs that need just a fraction of the fluid. His first machine 30 years ago used 5,000 liters of helium. His latest design in development is projected to need no more than 10.