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Meet the Innovators: Northeastern grads promise early detection of diseases with breakthrough MRI technology

Northeastern’s support fueled physicist Codi Gharagouzloo’s quest from cancer cure dreams to quantum-based MRI innovation, redefining imaging diagnostics.

Three MRI scans of a human brain.
QUTE-CE MRI images are 100 times better quality than regular MRI scans done without a contrast and 10 times better than MRI with a contrast agent Gadolinium. Images by Kevin Johnson, Ph.D., UW

Codi Gharagouzloo, a physicist and bioengineer, enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Northeastern University in 2011, dreaming of curing cancer.

“I originally came in with this sort of magic bullet idea,” he says. “I thought nanoparticles were just going to be the cure to cancer.”

In the mid-2000s, nanoparticles, a class of tiny materials that cannot be seen with a regular microscope, and nanomedicine, which uses medical intervention at the molecular level, became a highly promising area of research on cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

As a research assistant in the lab of Srinivas Sridhar, director of Nanomedicine Innovation Center at Northeastern and distinguished professor of physics, Gharagouzloo used magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to study the use of iron oxide nanoparticles for quantifying the enhanced permeability and retention effect when molecules of certain size can accumulate in tumor tissue.

But he soon realized that nanoparticle drug delivery to cancer would be made successful through specific targeting for specific cancers, driven by discoveries in molecular biology and not physics.

Valerie and Codi Gharagouzloo in front of a blue wall that says 'Future of Health' on it.
Valerie, left, and Codi Gharagouzloo, co-founders of Imaginostics, believe QUTE-CE MRI will reshape health care and facilitate early detection of complex diseases. Courtesy Photo

Before long he came up with a new, visionary idea — what if he could overcome the drawback of MRI scans, which produce only visual, qualitative data, and provide radiologists with new, quantitative information on internal tissues and organs acquired by measuring blood vessels with new methods.  

Those diagnostics were needed for precision medicine, he says, which focuses on individualized evaluation of disease risks, diagnostics and treatment plans for patients.

It took Gharagouzloo six months to learn the physics behind the MRI technology and 12 years to reach the first phase of commercialization of the novel technology he and Sridhar developed at Northeastern. Several other Ph.D. students in Sridhar’s lab also contributed to the research, including Tianyi Zhou, Ju Qiao and Liam Timms. 

Gharagouzloo credits Northeastern for providing him with resources needed to start developing his idea. He was provided access to an MRI scanner, he says, from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m.

He says he received a great deal of support from Craig Ferris, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Translational NeuroImaging at Northeastern. They discussed ideas and possible applications of the new technology. 

Gharagouzloo co-founded his company, Imaginostics, in July 2018 with his wife, Valerie, whom he met during a summer abroad in her native France, and an angel investor, Mike Lawson, that the couple met through their local church in Boston.

“It’s a very different path than having stayed in academia,” he says. “It’s a little bit scary to do something different. But at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself the question of do you want this to be out there and helping people?”

Imaginostics was recognized as a finalist among more than 4,500 participants of Hello Tomorrow, a prestigious competition for deep tech startups — young companies using new technology rooted in science and engineering to help solve global problems. 

Valerie, a New York licensed attorney, who is now the chief operating officer of Imaginostics, is a graduate of Northeastern’s School of Law. She practiced in the field of U.S. immigration law until a few months ago. 

Imaginostics’ breakthrough technology, called “QUTE-CE MRI,” is a platform technology for non-invasive imaging that transforms any MRI machine into a powerful quantitative diagnostic tool. A proprietary software controls the MRI scanner that acquires a new type of data, Gharagouzloo says. The imagining is enhanced by a non-toxic iron-oxide-based contrast agent.

The images produced by the new technology have 10 times better quality than regular MRI scans currently done with a toxic contrast agent Gadolinium, Gharagouzloo says, or 100 times better than MRI scans without a contrast agent.

The Gharagouzloos say the technology is rooted in quantum physics and changes how MRI acquires the signal produced during a procedure, thus obtaining novel data that is impossible to produce with AI only.

The technology can be used to diagnose and observe diseases that involve the vascular system — arteries, veins and the microcirculation in arterioles, capillaries and venules. Specifically, it can be used for such conditions as tumors, cancers, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, kidney disease, cardiology, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The Gharagouzloos believe QUTE-CE MRI will reshape health care, they say, because it can replace the standard of care that uses a toxic contrast agent and be used for early detection of complex diseases, decades in advance before symptoms onset. They plan to make it available for any diagnostic facility with an MRI scanner.

“As we can detect diseases many years in advance, then we’re also going to provide clinical endpoints [outcome measure in clinical trials] helping pharma to develop treatments that work,” Valerie Gharagouzloo says. “Patients will have a better chance to treat their disease or advocate for new types of treatments.”