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Next-generation medical scanning
January 14, 2018, 2:00 pm

Researchers at York University in Canada have developed a new way to magnetize molecules that are found naturally in the human body. This could pave the way for a new generation of low-cost magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology that would transform our ability to diagnose and treat diseases including cancer, diabetes and dementia.

While still in the early stages, researchers have made significant steps towards a new MRI method with the potential to enable doctors to personalize life-saving medical treatments and allow real-time imaging to take place in critical locations such as operating theatres.

Traditional MRI, which works by detecting the magnetism of molecules to create an image, has for years been a crucial tool in medical diagnostics. However, current technology is not very efficient — a typical hospital scanner will effectively detect only one molecule in every 200,000, making it difficult to see the full picture of what is happening in the body. While there are several improved scanners being trailed in various countries, they all continue to employ superconducting magnets that make the models bulky and expensive.

Now researchers say they have found a way to transfer the ‘invisible’ magnetism of para-hydrogen (a magnetic form of hydrogen gas) into an array of molecules that occur naturally in the body such as glucose, urea and pyruvate. Using ammonia as a carrier, the researchers have been able to ‘hyper-polarize’ substances such as glucose without changing their chemical composition, which would risk them becoming toxic.

It is now theoretically possible that these magnetized, non-harmful substances could be injected into the body and visualized. Because the molecules have been hyperpolarized there would be no need to use a superconducting magnet to detect them — smaller, cheaper magnets or even just the Earth's magnetic field would suffice.

If the method were to be successfully developed it could enable a molecular response to be seen in real time and at low-cost. Moreover, the nontoxic nature of the technique would introduce the possibility of regular and repeated scans for patients. These factors would improve the ability of the medical profession to monitor and personalize treatments, possibly resulting in more successful outcomes for individuals.

Currently, when a surgeon extracts a brain tumor from a patient they aim to remove all the cancerous tissue while at the same time removing as little healthy tissue as possible. The new technique could allow doctors to accurately visualize cancerous tissue at a far greater depth there and then.

The research also has the potential to bring MRI to countries in the developing world that do not have the uninterrupted power supplies or infrastructure to operate current scanners. As well as its applications in medicine and general healthcare, the method could also provide benefits to the chemical and pharmaceutical industries in addition to environmental and molecular science.

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