University MRI lab remains shuttered by bridge collapseby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
With the rebuilding of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis under way, one University of Minnesota researcher's work remains shelved nearly three months since the bridge's collapse. The MRI lab was not damaged, even though the building sits within 50 feet of the collapsed bridge. But concerns over safety and liability prompted the university to close the lab, leaving the research there in limbo.
Minneapolis, Minn. — For all the destruction resulting from the bridge collapse, one of the buildings closest to the site was fortunate to emerge intact. The U of M researchers who work in the non-descript, block building and the powerful, sensitive equipment inside were unscathed.
But their fortune quickly dissipated. The research that has gone on in the building for more than 15 years has yet to resume. The scanners they use -- similar to the MRI machines in radiology centers only much more powerful -- are mothballed, stored in warehouse. The lab is now series of empty rooms with dangling pipes and wires.
"It took a good solid month to pack up the systems," says radiology professor Bruce Hammer.
Hammer laments the abrupt halt to his research at the Center for Interdisciplinary Applications in Magnetic Resonance. Part of the work involved examining the human pancreas for transplantation. The MRI tests can perform an examination in minutes, compared to hours or days with conventional chemical testing.
"When a pancreas comes in from, say, California to be transplanted here, obviously the faster you can do it, the more viable the tissue will be," he says.
Hammer's lab has grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense. He also works in conjunction with companies like Medtronic, St. Jude Medical, Boston Scientific, and AGA Medical.
The lab's most powerful magnet helps with experiments to study why astronauts lose bone mass in space.
All of this research is stalled and in jeopardy of ending if Hammer doesn't find a new lab soon. The nature of the work requires the new space to be somewhat isolated, since the powerful magnetic fields can bleed into neighboring areas.
"That doesn't exist on campus. You just don't have empty thousands of square feet sitting empty on a college campus," says Hammer.
It's looking more and more likely that he'll have to find office space away from campus, Hammer says. But that would require additional rent, cutting the money available for graduate students who help with the research.
"That would put me at a significant competitive disadvantage with respect to investigators in the university, and compared to other universities too," says Hammer.
An off-campus lab would also be harder for students to get to, and limit access to other professors.
Hammer estimates he's already spent close to $100,000 packing up the lab. The sophisticated magnets are kept super-cold. Warming them to room temperature and moving them is a slow, methodical process.
Given all the trouble, Hammer wonders whether university officials were too hasty in shuttering the lab. Officials believe the site is a hazard for the duration of construction, Vice President for University Services Kathleen O'Brien says.
"The university believes it's prudent in managing our risk, but ensuring protection to our faculty, students and staff that they are not down in that area on a regular basis," O'Brien says.
An analysis by architects expected by the end of the year will have a recommendation of what to do with the building, according to O'Brien.
The collapse of the bridge has highlighted another potential liability for the university. The building that housed the MRI research was originally home to nuclear physics experiments using a massive machine called the Tandem Accelerator.
The 200-foot long, submarine-shaped device still resides behind four-foot thick walls designed to contain low levels of radiation. It once helped researchers understand nuclear structure. But it has stood mostly idle since the late 1970s.
Removing the accelerator could cost the university as much as $1 million. The bridge collapse provided what O'Brien calls an opportunity to decide the accelerator's fate.
"It was really a matter of convening people and having discussions that had been going on on a low-key basis, but really kind of called the question," says O'Brien.
The university is hoping to sell off the usable parts of the accelerator to those who operate any of the nine similar machines still working around the world.
One possible short-term use of the building is to lease it out to the construction company that's erecting the new bridge.
- Morning Edition, 11/01/2007, 7:20 a.m.