By Whitney L.J. Howell

For Allan Johnson, Ph.D., professional life has meant two connected, but separate, career paths and three start-up companies. Along the way, he’s helped bring medical imaging at Duke into clearer focus.

“I’ve been in clinical science and basic science,” said Johnson, the Charles E. Putman University Professor of Radiology. “And, all of it impacted how visualization tools function and how they’re best used.”

Clinically, he oversaw the progression of imaging technology, such as CT and MRI, within the Duke University Health System and was instrumental in bringing the first CT scanners to the institution in 1974. At the bench, he worked with helium to bring greater clarity to MRI images.

From the beginning, Johnson, who is also director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)/National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering-funded Center for In Vivo Microscopy, collaborated with other researchers to perfect animal imaging, making it applicable for human use. In doing so, he’s been part of one of the longest-running NIH grants.

His first business opportunity surfaced through a collaboration with Princeton investigators. Together, they formed a company called MITI (Magnetic Imaging Technologies, Inc.) and developed ways to polarize helium 3 molecules for nuclear scattering. Doing so makes the molecules active for use in MRI machines. They successfully increased signal strength by a factor of 3,000, and it was first used with humans in 1996.

Through his second company, MRPath, Inc., he improved upon 3D imaging at high spatial resolutions. By engineering a method to securely hold tissue in place, he and his colleagues augmented the MRI signal by 1,000,000 times – a higher degree of clarity than was previously possible in clinical settings. Although the company shuttered after five years when its main client – the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences – experienced a budget cut, the technology has been useful in drug delivery, genomics, and metabolics.

Johnson’s latest endeavor – Interactive Publishing – has been tackling large data sets up to 1 terabyte in size. Most existing imaging archives are so large that moving and sharing them is nearly impossible. Trying to do so can cripple individual work stations. But, by using a grid server developed by the gaming company Invidia, he’s making them more user-friendly.

“The answer is to take a page from the gamers,” he said.

With that structure in place, information can be accessed remotely and only particular, selected images or data points can be downloaded. This prevents any individual work stations from crashing and still keeps information readily-obtainable.

Ultimately, he said, he would like for all information – images and non-images – to be published and available in some way online.

“I would love to be able to publish all my data digitally. Wouldn’t it be grand to have an image library in the cloud?” Johnson said. “I want people to be able to peruse data and ask questions that are interesting to them. Right now, they’re just seeing the questions and answers that are interesting to me.”