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Scientist Claims Exclusion From Nobel Prize for MRI


A New York man says he's the actual inventor of the body-imaging technology.

October 11, 2003|Thomas H. Maugh II and Charles Piller | Times Staff Writers

In an unusual public protest, a New York scientist placed full-page ads in at least three major newspapers claiming he was unfairly denied the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which was awarded to two other scientists for the invention of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

The costly ads -- totaling an estimated $290,000 for publication in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post -- claimed that the actual inventor of MRI was Dr. Raymond Damadian, president and founder of Fonar Corp. on Long Island, N.Y.

The Nobel Prize was awarded Monday to scientists Paul C. Lauterbur of the University of Illinois and Sir Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham in England, whose contributions to the development of MRI are widely acknowledged.

The ads, paid for by Fonar, claimed that the Nobel committee was rewriting history by failing to acknowledge Damadian's role in developing the technology, which is extensively used for providing detailed images of the interior of the human body.

Damadian has frequently said, "Had I never been born, there would be no MRI today," and he said it again to reporters Friday. "I can't escape the fact that I started it all."

The ads, which appeared Thursday in the Washington Post and Friday in the other newspapers, claimed that Damadian made the "breakthrough" that led to MRI, and that the Nobel committee "did one thing it had no right to do: It ignored the truth."

"We are perplexed, disappointed and angry about the incomprehensible exclusion of [Damadian] from this year's Nobel Prize," Eugene Feigelson, dean of the college of medicine at State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn, said in a statement printed in Fonar's advertisement. "MRI's entire development rests on the shoulders of Damadian's discovery."

But other scientists believe Damadian's claim is groundless.

"Most of us in the field would clearly think [the Nobel committee] got it right this time," said Dr. E. James Potchen, a radiologist at Michigan State University. "It was a wise, conscientious decision."

"You shouldn't be able to buy a Nobel Prize," added radiologist Paul A. Bottomley of Johns Hopkins University.

Lauterbur could not be reached for comment, but his wife said that he preferred not to discuss Damadian's claims. Mansfield also could not be reached for comment.

Controversies about who was or was not named as a Nobel laureate occur almost every year, according to Svante Lindqvist, director of the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. Award choices are often challenged, he said, because of the "three-person rule," which prohibits dividing a single award among more than three individuals.

But never in anyone's memory has a neglected researcher organized such a public brouhaha, placing ads asking people to write, phone or e-mail the Nobel committee urging them to include another scientist.

The ad featured an upside down picture of the Nobel medal, headlined: "The Shameful Wrong That Must Be Righted."

Up until the 1970s, magnetic resonance -- then called nuclear magnetic resonance -- was a tool used by chemists to deduce the structure of organic molecules. The technique relies on the magnetic properties of hydrogen atoms, which are present in most organic molecules and in the water in the human body. When the hydrogen atoms are immersed in a powerful magnetic field and bombarded with radio waves, they emit radio signals that provide information about their local environment.

Damadian, 67, has made a key contribution in the field. In 1971, he reported in the journal Science that the radio signals emitted by cancerous tissue were different from those emitted by healthy tissues. At the time, he proclaimed loudly that the technique would soon be used to detect cancer.

Damadian envisioned an MRI scanner that would take pictures of the body's interior; he drew up plans for constructing such a machine and received several patents. There was only one problem, according to Bottomley and other experts: Damadian was never able to use his idea to produce actual images.

His technique produced "a list of numbers, and there is a tremendous jump between collecting data and creating an image," Potchen said. "Images are what's important in medicine."

Lauterbur conceived the technique for producing images while watching one of his graduate students replicate Damadian's original study in his laboratory. "Lauterbur described it, and General Electric went out and built equipment that really works," Potchen said.

It's unlikely that Damadian will learn whether or not he was seriously considered, because the Nobel Foundation does not release the details of committee deliberations until 50 years after awards are made.

Even if Damadian's claim is valid, the Nobel Foundation has never reversed itself.

In 1944, the Nobel for chemistry was awarded to Otto Hahn for the discovery of nuclear fission. Hahn was given sole credit, although his collaborator, Lise Meitner, is widely viewed as an equal discoverer.

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