Night vision aids in molecular imaging research

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Researchers at the Center for Molecular Imaging at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are using near-infrared night vision technology to shed light on the lymphatic system.

Eva Sevick, PhD, who leads the 20-person research team in the university's Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases (IMM), said that until recently comparatively little was known about the lymphatic system.

Unlike blood, lymphatic fluid is clear, and lymphatic vessels are so small that it is difficult to inject the amount of contrast agents needed for traditional MRI or x-rays. Although lymphatic fluid can be seen with nuclear techniques, actual fluid movement is hard to observe because it typically takes several minutes to acquire an image.

Sevick's team injected micro amounts of fluorescent dye below the skin where the lymphatic system would sweep it up. Then with the aid of a small laser and a night vision camera designed to pick up small amounts of light in less than one second, the researchers observed the dye move through the lymph system below the surface of the skin.

"The Center for Molecular Imaging is poised to develop and translate molecular imaging agents, instruments and computer algorithms for improving patient care in a variety of diseases," Sevick said. "With our optical technologies, we could image disease before the onset of symptoms. We also investigate the impact of breast cancer therapy on lymphatic function in order to evaluate how long-term treatments impact quality of life for cancer survivors."

Sevick is working to translate her bench discoveries into patient care. With the approval of the FDA, the researchers in her lab have begun patient trials using this medical imaging technique, which could aid in the diagnosis and treatment of many diseases including those of the lymphatic system.

The research is supported in part by the National Institutes of Health and the Longaberger Foundation through the American Cancer Society.