Monday, September 17, 2012

Are chemists to blame in the Lauterbur/Damadian dispute?

Also in this week's C&EN, I was reading Jovana J. Grbić's review of Morton Meyer's book "Prize Fight" (about the difficulties surrounding credit for significant scientific discoveries) and was surprised to read this section:
In his other case study, Meyers reviews the awarding of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to chemist Paul Lauterbur and physicist Peter Mansfield for their discoveries concerning magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The careful wording of the prize reflects the fact that Lauterbur and Mansfield did not come up with the original idea of applying nuclear magnetic resonance to medical imaging. That distinction is held by physician Raymond Damadian, who realized there was a lag in T1 and T2 relaxation times between the electrons of normal and malignant tissues in rats and published a seminal 1971 paper laying out a case for NMR use in organ imaging (Science,DOI: 10.1126/science.171.3976.1151). 
Lauterbur, building on Damadian’s ideas, realized that you could use NMR to produce images by mapping the location of hydrogen nuclei in the body. The machine that he built, which pioneered the capture of magnetic gradients at different angles and NMR signals at each specific orientation, was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 2011 by the American Chemical Society. Lauterbur also coauthored a Nature brief that has been called one of the most influential publications of the 21st century (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/242190a0). Nevertheless, Damadian had still beaten Lauterbur both in originating the idea of MRI as well as in building a prototype machine that produced images. 
Meyers contends that Damadian’s story is indicative of multiple manifestations of ingrained bias within the scientific community. Damadian is a medical doctor, whose pioneering ideas about chemistry and physics simply weren’t taken seriously by Ph.D. chemists. What’s more, Meyers writes, Damadian has a difficult personality, and he often rubbed his peers and colleagues the wrong way. 
Meyers uses the Damadian case to criticize the peer-reviewed funding of science in the U.S. He contends that the process is rife with cronyism and conflicts of interest. Colleagues siding with Lauterbur, Meyers writes, gave him advance notice to submit an NIH grant application for an MRI prototype. The application then received fast-track funding—before Damadian’s grant was ever evaluated.
I confess, my first knowledge of the Damadian/Lauterbur fight was Dr. Damadian's bizarre ads in the New York Times. After talking with some knowledgeable (albeit biased) chemists, I was left with the impression that Professor Lauterbur had made more of the key discoveries towards MRI. But Dr. Damadian (and now Meyers) has always laid this out as a fight between chemists and doctors, and well, all the people I know are chemists.

Does anyone have any insight on this issue? I'd love to hear the real story.

1 comment:

  1. I probably qualify as a biased chemist, but if you read the papers yourself, you can see what the score is for yourself.

    Damadian had the really neat idea of differentiating benign vs malignant tissue by differences in relaxation times and all that, and suggested that NMR could make for a useful tool in medical diagnosis.

    Lauterbur actually figured out how to image stuff with magnetic resonance, and suggested applications beyond medicine in his paper. He has an actual reconstructed image of an aqueous sample in his 1973 Nature paper. If you check on his citations, you will see that he was influenced by efforts in image reconstruction from x-ray and electron micrographs.

    No contest, IMO. If the prize was for magnetic resonance spectroscopy and imaging as applied to medicine, sure, Damadian would have been an appropriate third laureate. It was not, however. I don't know why - one would have to ask the Nobel Foundation, but my impression is that they're not going to say anything.