Processing MRIs faster with Amazon Web Services

In 1971, the story goes, a chemist was eating a hamburger and was struck by an idea. Could signals be turned into images? He scrambled to get paper to jot it all down. When he was finished, he had in front of him a method that would change medicine forever.

In 1978, a young scientist climbed into a big metal tube and waited. Some of his colleagues feared for his life. They feared that this new technology would disrupt the electrical signals in his heart, leading to serious injury or even death. But the young scientist wasn’t terribly worried. After almost an hour in the tube, he climbed back out into the world, sweating like, well, like what he was: a human being who had just experienced the first magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

These were huge moments for the global advancement of science. And as different as they were--separate by time, place, and person--two things string them together like shining pearls on the chain of progress.

The first, of course, is the MRI technology that resulted from their disparate discoveries and experimentations. And the second is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where both scientists worked at separate points in their careers.

The chemist, we know, is Dr. Paul Lauterbur, who joined the Illinois faculty in 1985. The young scientist, Sir Peter Mansfield, a Physics Ph.D., worked on his ideas about magnetizing nuclei as a postdoctoral researcher at the Urbana campus in the 1960s.

In 2003, Drs. Lauterbur and Mansfield connected for a third time: they received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work.

Their legacy lives on at Illinois. We’re working to combine MRI with state-of-the-art cloud computing, to make processing MRI data even faster.

In the winter of 2016, Technology Services partnered with the Beckman Institute’s Biomedical Imaging Center (BIC) to connect their MRI processing workflow to Amazon Web Services (AWS). Technology Services initially committed $2,500 to help pay for transitioning to a new environment.

The collaboration has already produced stunning results. Processing one image series used to take three months. Now it takes just three days.

Chris Kuehn, Manager of Enterprise Unix Operations with the Research IT team at Technology Services, believes that further minor work could reduce the processing time to one day and cut the AWS cost by as much as 50%. Kuehn was instrumental in moving BIC to AWS. He wrote scripts that made it possible to get data to and pull data from AWS, configured roles and security to make sure that BIC staff could continue to access their data as they were used to doing, and connected staff to campus AWS representatives.

Perhaps most importantly, Kuehn “explained everything to me, so that I fully understood and was able to successfully and confidently make changes later in the process as the setup changed,” explained Professor Brad Sutton, Associate Professor of Bioengineering and Technical Director of the Biomedical Imaging Center at Beckman Institute.

Equipped with that knowledge, Sutton is comfortable walking into a future where more and more datasets, like the Human Connectome Project, are found on AWS.

“Computational resources like AWS have become more available and less expensive,” Sutton explains.

Fortunately, this means that anyone with a good hypothesis can contribute to advancing our understanding of the brain.

But not everyone is a brain expert, of course. Researchers who are brain experts also need to work where the data are.

“Providing an environment where our neuroimaging researchers can easily scale their analyses will enable them to ask even more complex questions and provide even richer insights into how the brain works, leveraging existing data along with their own novel experiments,” Sutton says.

To learn more about how researchers at Illinois are using AWS with MRI data, see this story.

All images provided by Dr. Sutton.


Research IT is available to help connect researchers to the IT resources they need to empower their research. Visit for more information.