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Medical Delta professor Andrew Webb: ‘In The Netherlands, people are much more open to cooperation’

Commercial MRI systems cost millions of euros to purchase and require highly trained technicians to operate. Prof. Andrew Webb works on accessible MRI techniques that offer new opportunities in both developed and developing countries. Webb is a professor at the Radiology Department of the LUMC and, as a Medical Delta professor, is looking to strengthen collaborations with TU Delft and Erasmus MC. ‘What we develop must benefit people. If something is new, innovative and cool, but not applicable, then it is not important for our project.’

Andrew Webb on his onderzoek

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‘I'm not someone who cares much about titles,’ Webb explains. ‘The real attraction of this appointment is the chance to expand the collaborations with researchers in Delft and clinicians in Rotterdam. Being part of Medical Delta is also good for publicity and gives me the chance to say what I think is important more often. It is also a great way to get to know many people quickly. Like a kind of speed dating.’

With a background in engineering and physics, Webb has been working on medical applications for a long time. First in the UK, then the US and Germany, and now for the past ten years in Leiden in The Netherlands. ‘In America you often see many different disciplines within a university and there you already have what Medical Delta does. But despite having separate technical and medical institutes, people in The Netherlands are much more open to collaboration and it is less about egos. So when I started in Leiden I went to Delft to get acquainted. I talked to different departments, including Water Resources. Based on these interactions, many good collaborations arose.’

Andrew Webb

What are you working on at the moment?

‘I want to develop an MRI machine that costs one percent of a current MRI scanner. The physics side and the mechanical design are in Leiden. TU Delft adds the expertise on how to make the electrical components robust and cheaper. I think up what the MRI should do, TU Delft provides the technical design to make it possible.

This new, low-cost MRI technique has three areas of application. The first is in low- and middle-income countries. There are essentially no MRI machines there at the moment. They are simply too expensive to buy, too sensitive to local conditions and there is a lack of specific knowledge for use. Therefore, there is a great need for affordable and robust scanners. Because there is nothing now, the impact of our machine is huge. Disorders that can be detected with a simple scan can then be treated.

The second application is in countries such as The Netherlands. MRI is common here, but it's expensive and intensive for the patient. It's one of the last things you do in a medical examination. We are working on a much simpler scanner with a weaker magnetic field. A scan then takes about ten minutes and you see the results immediately. Of course, it doesn't provide the high quality images of a regular scanner, but it's fine for a pre-screening. To quickly see whether there is a large abnormality present which requires a conventional clinical follow-up scan, for example. Because it is easily accessible, you can use it more often and at an early stage.

The third application is for research. Think of the large-scale population developmental studies at Erasmus MC. With a low-threshold MRI technique, you could collect much more data, for example on brain development in children.

In addition to these studies within the Medical Delta collaboration, I am also involved in a Medical Delta scientific programme where image technology combined with advanced data analysis is used to study dementia and strokes. This is a broad collaboration between LUMC, Erasmus MC and TU Delft to which I contribute with my expertise on MRI.’

What is your advice for successful collaboration?

‘Be clear about your end goal and define what would make the project successful. In many projects, that consists of publications or getting funding - in ours it is different. Our project is only successful, for example, if it benefits patients in low- and middle-income countries. This is also what motivates everyone involved. What we develop must benefit people. If something is new, innovative and cool, but not applicable, it is not important for our project. This non-conventional approach was not there at the beginning and I really had to work to sell it. I had to be very direct and become even more Dutch than the Dutch! But it's really important, be as clear as possible from the first day of working together.’

How far are you in achieving the goals?

‘We know our technique works and the first successful scans with test subjects have already been made. The next step to make it available to patients is to get the right certification and approval from the medical authorities. In January we will start building a first setup in Uganda and in a few years we want to have several of our MRI machines operational in this country.’

Which other researcher have you been surprised by?

‘One example is Rolf Hut from TU Delft. He works in civil engineering, water resources. He has a column in De Volkskrant and together with his children he makes all kinds of inventions. We met and he told me about a way they measure the temperature in pipelines. That way they can easily detect a leak. In our MRI scanner, we want to measure the patient's temperature at different places on the body and this turned out to be very feasible using the same technique. We use one kilometre of optical fibre and place it criss-cross under a patient. It's very thin material so the patient doesn't notice anything. So now we are using a technique from water resources, something I had never heard of before we met.’

This article is part of a series in which we highlight the nine new Medical Delta professors. Click here for the other portraits published so far. Andrew Webb's research contributes, among other things, to the Medical Delta Diagnostics 3.0 scientific programme: Dementia and stroke

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