Scientists at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute in Houston are in the early stages of deploying a unique imaging suite designed to help pinpoint the start and cause of highly infectious diseases.

Researchers believe the initiative — part of a collaboration with Philips Healthcare — will help them diagnose patients much more quickly without exposing caregivers to infectious agents. The suite will be useful for diagnosing all types of infectious diseases, but could prove invaluable in acts of bioterrorism or a pandemic.

"The ability to have imaging suites that can handle high-level infectious agents allows us to be more prepared in the community for these types of events and, more importantly, allows us to study ways to deal with their consequences," says King Li, M.D., radiology chair at the research institute and the project's leader.

Air-tight containment vessels that can accommodate life-support systems will make it possible for tissue samples and infected research models to be imaged rapidly without risks of exposure to other patients, researchers or staff. The suite will be used to study pathogens that require biosafety Level 3 containment, including bacteria that cause tuberculosis.

The double-shell containment vessel will keep the subjects — initially microorganisms, later animal subjects and, eventually, human patients — isolated from the unexposed space around it.

"Our facility will permit us to translate critical new discoveries into the clinic, permitting accelerated development of novel diagnostic strategies and assessment of new therapeutic agents and vaccines," says James M. Musser, M.D., chair of the pathology department and laboratory medicine and director of the Center for Molecular and Translational Human Infectious Diseases Research at the Methodist Hospital.

The Philips imaging systems deployed in the suite include an MRI scanner, a 64 PET-CT scanner, a SPECT-CT scanner, and a mobile C-arm. Li notes that the technology will provide a much deeper and more rapid assessment of patients than traditional assessment methods for patients suspected of having highly infectious diseases.

"If you have a patient who becomes very sick, you don't know whether the patient is diseased or not. Blood tests take days to come back. This is a very quick assessment — within hours — and it's much more reliable than listening to the lungs with a stethoscope and so on," Li explains.

He adds that this project will provide benefits for all hospitals by helping to evaluate which sources of diagnostic imaging produce the most accurate result for specific infectious diseases.

"We are moving the infection control community into the current century by giving the tools they need to be using today but because of the risks of contamination no one is using," Li says.