New molecular MRI tags glow 10,000 times brighter than existing signals

Researchers from Duke University have developed a new type of molecular tag that can enhance MRI signals by up to 10,000 times the quality of existing capabilities, according to results of a study published in the March 25 issue of Science Advances.

The discovery, which focuses on the ability to “hyperpolarize” biologically important molecules to convert them into MRI super signals that shine brighter and last longer than existing tags, could soon be used by scientists and doctors to record biochemical reactions inside the body in real time.

“This represents a completely new class of molecules that doesn’t look anything at all like what people thought could be made into MRI tags,” lead author Warren S. Warren, PhD, said in a university press release. “We envision it could provide a whole new way to use MRI to learn about the biochemistry of disease.”

The newly created tags are biocompatible and inexpensive to produce, which could allow researchers to monitor diseases like cancer and heart disease and their metabolic processes.

“Hyperpolarization gives them 10,000 times more signal than they would normally have if they had just been magnetized in an ordinary magnetic field,” Warren said. 

Although the initial research is promising, there are several hurdles to realizing the technology’s potential, including expensive equipment (around $3 million for one machine) and the often difficult-to-predict lifespan of the new tags’ signals.

“It’s hard to take an image with an agent that is only visible for seconds, and there are a lot of biological processes you could never hope to see,” Warren said. “We wanted to try to figure out what molecules could give extremely long-lived signals so that you could look at slower processes.” 

Read more about the researchers’ findings here.