UH researcher nets grant to develop color-coded MRIs

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Li Sun, PhD, associate professor of mechanical engineering in University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering, has received a three-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a new class of contrast agents to provide color to MRI images.

Project collaborators include Dong Liu, PhD, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at University of Houston, and researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

“Currently, MRIs are in black and white. If you use one of the existing contrast agents, you only adjust the gray scale, which makes the bright parts of the image brighter and the dark parts darker. These new nanostructures will allow you to use different colors to identify each type of tissue,” Sun said.

In a clinical setting, these new agents will be introduced into a patient, most likely in a liquid that will be injected. The patient will then undergo an MRI, with the system programmed to scan at the magnetic frequencies assigned to the different nanostructures injected into the patient. The MRI scanner will assign a color to each type of nanostructure it senses--such as red for a ligament and blue for bone. The scans will be combined into a single, color-coded image.

Sun said producing easier-to-read MRIs is not the only use for these new nanostructures. Individual cells, such as stem cells, could be tagged with the nanostrucutures and then tracked in the human body. And nanostructures that bond with cancer cells could be heated with a high-frequency magnetic field, killing the cancer cells but leaving nearby healthy cells intact, Sun said.