Radiology professor receives $1.9M NIH grant for advanced MRI-based asthma study

The National Institutes of Health has awarded a University of Missouri radiology professor nearly $2 million to test a new asthma treatment using state-of-the-art imaging.

Robert Thomen, PhD, an assistant professor at MU School of Medicine, will observe whether the new approach is working by watching patients' breathing during hyperpolarized MRI scanning.

As patients inhale the xenon gas visible using this specific modality, he believes he can determine earlier whether the biologic approach is working. The Columbia-based school is one of only 15 places in North America using this technology.

“This technique is the most sensitive way to measure lung function and will provide a roadmap to help us visualize where lungs may be impaired,” he added in a July 13 statement. “We think we can predict patient response to biologic therapy eight weeks earlier than traditional testing, which may improve outcomes and substantially reduce costs.”


Standard asthma care historically involves testing medications and moving to another treatment if one does not work, the “opposite” of precision medicine, Thomen said. Biologics, however, are tailored to a patient’s specific biomarkers and help rare, severe cases.

Unfortunately, the approach works in less than 80% of patients, is expensive, and based on imprecise measures. With this five-year, $1.9 million grant, Thomen hopes he can improve life for asthma patients across Missouri.

“We can see where the defects are in the lungs, use an inhaler designed to open up airways, then conduct a second screening to determine improvement,” he added. “If the inhaler isn’t effective in certain areas of the lung, the asthma may be related to inflammation, and a biologic treatment may be more beneficial.”