Imaging is rapidly becoming an essential tool for the research and development of new medicines.

Imaging techniques include:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Positron emission tomography (PET)
  • Single photon emission tomography (SPECT)
  • Ultrasound 
  • Optical imaging

Such techniques can often be used in animals as well as humans, so information from clinical studies can be directly translated to validate animal models of disease and, vice versa, animal imaging can provide insight into the human condition and treatment effects.

Imaging is important for the reduction, refinement and replacement (the 3 Rs) of techniques in animal research. Gathering a range of data MRI produces 3-dimensional images of all body systems non-invasively. It can be used to understand disease processes, monitor the progress of a disease and its response to treatment at an early stage. MRI is especially useful for investigating brain function in psychiatric and neurological disease.

PET images chemical processes in human organs using radioactive tracers and ligands that bind to receptors in the brain, heart and lungs, providing information on changes at a molecular level. Hence quantitative data can be gathered on the distribution and impact of a new medicine, in an animal study or a clinical trial. The data are processed using specialist computer systems and software to provide quantitative measurements. Thus the deployment of the imaging technology and the acquisition of the image data are often only the first stage of a complex analytical process. 

As well as providing early data on responses to treatment, imaging can speed up drug development. With around £1 billion spent on every medicine that reaches the market, substantial savings can be made if the timescale can be reduced. Developing techniques to help identify potential medicines that are not going to prove effective is just as valuable as supporting active compounds. Imaging can provide more sensitive methods to measure compound activity; by using each subject as their own control, the resulting increase in statistical and scientific power means group sizes and trial times can be reduced compared with conventional methods. Imaging can therefore save huge amounts of money if the compound can be rejected at an early stage before large, multicentre trials are initiated.

Those working in medical imaging have backgrounds in biological, medical, computing or physical science, obtaining further training usually in specialist academic imaging laboratories as part of their MSc, MRes or PhD studies. Industrial placements during first degrees, and CASE award PhD studentships can provide insight into how the pharmaceutical industry makes use of these techniques, either at in-house centres or through external academic collaborations.

Last modified: 20 September 2023

Last reviewed: 20 September 2023