Researchers at the University of York have created a new way to magnetize molecules found naturally in the human body, opening the door to more sensitive, cheaper medical scanning and better treatment of disease.

The new technology could assist radiologists, who are tasked with delivering faster interpretations of clinicians while cutting costs, in keeping with the cost constraints weighing on radiology because of the advent of value-based care.

Magnetic resonance imaging detects the magnetism of molecules to create an image, but the current technology is not efficient. A typical hospital scanner will effectively detect only one molecule in every 200,000. The low sensitivity limits the usefulness and applicability of MRI and nuclear magnetic resonance.

The York researchers found a way to make molecules more magnetic and thus more visible by transferring the magnetism of parahydrogen, a magnetic form of hydrogen gas, into molecules such as glucose and urea, using ammonia as a carrier. The hyperpolarization turns weak NMR and MRI responses into strong signals without affecting the molecules’ chemical composition, which would make them toxic, according to Professor Simon Duckett, from the Centre for Hyperpolarisation in Magnetic Resonance at the University of York’ Department of Chemistry, the study’s corresponding author.

This alternative imaging technique, called signal amplification by reversible exchange, or SABRE-RELAY, would improve a hospital scanner’s detection of molecules 6,000-fold; some of the experiments achieved a 100,000-fold improvement.

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The study’s authors expect that this new method can be used to hyperpolarize a wide range of biologically relevant materials, and when fully optimized, the process will have a “major impact” on NMR and MRI. For example, the process could enable surgeons to use imaging in the operating room to more accurately visualize cancerous tissues at a far greater depth, says Duckett.

In addition, because the molecules would be super-magnetized, it could be possible to use smaller, cheaper magnetic devices rather than the expensive, bulky superconductors currently in use. Production of scans would be faster, and because imaging would be at lower doses of radiation, patients could obtain scans more regularly or undergo longer scan times if necessary, thus potentially improving patient monitoring and outcomes.

The study, the first of this kind to use this approach, was published this month in Science Advances.

The researchers’ next steps are to optimize the chemical process and build a device to allow agents to be injected. The University of York has filed several patents on the process.

"We think we have the potential to achieve with MRI what could be compared to improvements in computing power and performance over the last 40 years. While they are a vital diagnostic tool, current hospital scanners could be compared to the abacus, the recent development of more sensitive scanners takes us to Alan Turing's computer; we are now attempting to create something scalable and low-cost that would bring us to the tablet or smartphone," Duckett said in the announcement of the study.

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