U.K. researchers nab grant to improve MR image quality

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The European Research Council has awarded a team of researchers from the University of Southampton a €2.8 million ($3.6 million USD) grant to support research into enhanced nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), which could lead to brighter and more precise MR images.

NMR, the physical principle underlying MRI scanning, produces inherently weak signals. However, recent methods lead to substances exhibiting a phenomenon called hyperpolarization, and give rise to NMR signals that can be more than 100,000 times stronger than normal. The problem is that this enhancement lasts a short amount of time—up to one minute in favorable cases.

Research in Southampton has previously demonstrated the existence of quantum states that have very long lifetimes—up to half an hour in the case of the common substance nitrous oxide. The grant will support a project that involves a combination of the hyperpolarization effect with the long-lived quantum states developed in Southampton. The combination could enable enhanced NMR signals which last long enough to perform an MRI scan.

“This could have benefits for MRI scanning. If you have strong signals, you can detect smaller amounts of substance that are less concentrated," said Malcom Levitt, PhD, of University of Southampton in Southampton, U.K., in a statement. "For example, some substances naturally occur in a cell as part of the metabolism process, but occur in greater amounts in cancerous cells. Through this method, we should be able to detect when these substances are present and cells are potentially cancerous, earlier than ever before. 

“Additionally, this method could allow us to detect oxygen levels in cells. When oxygen levels are depleted, this can mean that cells are metabolizing more quickly, which can suggest that the cells are cancerous.”

In addition to funding the research, the grant will allow for two new pieces of equipment to be installed at the University of Southampton. One will be a polarizer, which will be designed and constructed in Southampton, and which will generate substances exhibiting the hyperpolarization phenomenon. The second will be an NMR spectrometer equipped to perform small-scale MRI experiments, to test out the new concepts in preparation for performing experiments on a clinical MRI scanner.

It is hoped that this research, which will run over the next four years, will lead to the development of new tools for clinicians to detect metabolic or anatomical abnormalities in the body. The long term aim is the development of a range of clinical applications, including the early detection of cancer, according to the university.