Two Toronto teens are working on a better way to apply magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.

Grade 12 students Ben Nashman from Upper Canada College and Sunrose Billing at University of Toronto Schools are  exploring how to use MRIs in a new way. They hope it will some day be able to test what is in someone's blood, such as glucose, cholesterol or drugs, without puncturing the skin to sample the vital fluid. 

The 17-year-olds immersed themselves in understanding MRI technology as participants in The Knowledge Society (TKS), an after-school incubator program co-founded by Navid and Nadeem Nathoo to help students explore innovation. The tech entrepreneurs' mission is to inspire and develop the next generation of leaders and connect young people with leading experts to solve key problems in the world.

MRI scanners use a large magnet, radiofrequency waves and a computer to make detailed cross-section images of organs, bones and tissues. The noisy, noninvasive machines don't use ionizing radiation. They may run seven days a week to image abnormalities of the brain and spinal cord, tumours and cysts, joint problems and injuries. 

In 2016, the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health estimated 1.95 million MRI examinations were performed during the most recent fiscal year, the equivalent to 54 exams per 1,000 people.

Most MRI machines are based on signals from positively charged hydrogen in water and fat in our bodies. Nashman and Billing's approach detects other ions instead. They hope their patented approach will give much better quality images and diagnostic clues to degenerative diseases of the brain. 

So far, Nashman and Billing have tested their theories in computer simulations. Now they are gathering quotes and designs to build a prototype device. They envision placing the final miniature wearable device — the size of a watch or ring — on the skin to differentiate between cells and cell structures with high-resolution images.

The following is an abridged interview with Nashman and Billing, co-founders of the medical imaging technology company Synex Medical Inc. 

Why were you interested in magnetic resonance?

Ben Nashman: When I first came into TKS, I was extremely curious about biotech and biophysics. I was doing a lot of internet searching. Navid and Nadeem really pushed me to dive into these areas and find something I was passionate about. Over time I developed a few ideas of my own that would improve the resolution and granularity of current MRIs to be able to distinguish between individual types of cells. 

Sunrose Billing: I knew about Ben's MRI project in TKS and I found it really intriguing. We started solidifying the theory. We reached out to experts to make sure what we were saying was legitimate.

We met with experts that included professors from Carleton University in Ottawa and the University of Toronto and went over all the details of the project to ensure that every detail was perfect. Later, we reached out to one of the leading physics simulations company in the world, Ansys. We were generously given simulations to begin testing the MRI technology. We also began interning at Mount Sinai Hospital.

We discovered an even more exciting application of the tech: we discovered a way to use magnetic resonance for noninvasive blood testing. We began testing this application in the Ansys software, and started shifting our focus to this. We worked on portable designs that would have this technology integrated within it, and achieved amazing results with the simulations.

What will your device be like?

Billing: If you've ever seen an MRI scan, you can get information about the body without actually touching the body. It's a very similar method. 

The device uses magnetic resonance to non-invasively determine blood metabolite concentrations. What that means is that we can apply the tech that underlies MRIs to figure out the composition of someone's blood without having to penetrate any skin at all. It determines blood composition while it's in the blood vessels.

Sunrose Billing and Ben Nashman

Nashman and Billing are focused on a non-invasive blood testing device that uses magnetic resonance. (The Knowledge Society)

Nashman: The bare bones of it is we have a way of using nuclear magnetic resonance to eventually put a device on your body. We're still in the process of figuring out where that would be and what the dimensions would be. We're trying to make it as small as possible. What that essentially does is you get a reading from that device that tells you your blood glucose concentrations. Eventually we'll move on to cholesterol, THC [a psychoactive compound in marijuana] and alcohol.

The main thing here that hasn't been done before is that it's noninvasive and it's very small. 

What are your next steps?

Nashman: We've finalized our initial designs and will begin working with a first generation prototype within the next month. With this prototype, we'll be able to start testing on samples outside of the body.

Billing: At the same time, we're working with engineers on miniaturizing the electronics so that the device can be portable and easy to use. The data that actually goes through this device will always go to your phone or another device that you have on your person. That's how you can get readings from the graph. You can track your daily concentrations of glucose. 

MRI images

A conventional MRI scan, left, with a more detailed model. (Synex Medical)

The toughest part is definitely making the device work automatically and noninvasively, so optimizing the electronics for this is one of our top priorities.

Who could use this device?

Billing: It's not just a consumer device. Right now, THC is probably one of the hardest things for police to figure out if someone is high or not. With this, theoretically with what we're doing right now you could determine someone's THC content in a matter of seconds without a needle. 

What's next in terms of testing? 

Nashman: Once we achieve a final product, we will begin testing with hospitals to ensure its accuracy. After enough trials are completed [and some other steps], we can file an application for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to bring this to market.

We've been receiving incredible guidance from Jason Silver, COO of Integrate.ai, Andrew Marble, a former professor of biomedical engineering at Carleton, Sheetal Jaitly, CEO of Tribal Scale, Thas Yuwaraj, director of IP at Synaptive Medical and many other leading experts in various fields.

Marble, who has a PhD specializing in MRI hardware, commended Nashman and Billing for absorbing dense, technical information quickly to get to this point.

"They have identified a promising technology and have made great connections needed to evaluate it," Marble said. 

Marble said one advantage is the technology can be tested and proven outside the body before human trials are needed.