Medical scan sensitivity boosted
MRI can be an invaluable aid to diagnosis
A technique using the fuel which powers the space shuttle could make a form of medical scan much more sensitive.
The University of York developers say it has the potential to help doctors make a faster and more accurate diagnosis for many medical conditions.
It may also increase the range of conditions that can be studied using magnetic resonance imaging, they say.
Writing in Science, they describe how they boosted MRI sensitivity by manipulating the fuel parahydrogen.
Our method has the potential to help doctors make faster and more accurate diagnoses in a wide range of medical conditions
Professor Gary Green,
University of York
The technique increased the sensitivity of the scans by 1,000 times, and hugely speeded up the process of taking a scan, potentially reducing the cost of the procedure too.
It would take the standard method 100 hours to obtain the same amount of information the new technique generates in one second.
The technique works by interacting parahydrogen with a specially designed molecular field to create molecules that can be very easily detected by MRI scans.
Standard MRI scanners usually work by measuring information from hydrogen atoms found in the water and fat contained in the body's tissues.
But the new technique can also measure data from the carbon-based molecules that are the building blocks of the tissues themselves.
Lead researcher Professor Gary Green said: "Our method has the potential to help doctors make faster and more accurate diagnoses in a wide range of medical conditions.
"The technique could ultimately replace current clinical imaging technologies that depend on the use of radioactive substances or heavy metals, which themselves create health concerns."
Professor Ian Greer, dean of the Hull York Medical School, said: "This technological advance has the potential to revolutionise the accessibility and application of high quality medical imaging to patients.
"It will bring significant to benefits to diagnosis and treatment in virtually all areas of medicine and surgery, ranging from cancer diagnosis to orthopaedics and trauma."
Professor Derek Jones, an expert in MRI at Cardiff University, described the work as a "significant and exciting advance".
He said the York team's work meant that MRI could potentially be used to detect a larger range of molecules in the body, and in much smaller concentrations than previously possible.
"It shows great promise for expanding the applications of MRI in clinical and clinico-research settings, improving diagnosis and understanding of pathophysiology of a wide range of diseases."
Dr Martin Graves, an expert on MRI at the University of Cambridge, said the York technique was in competition with other potential ways to boost the sensitivity of MRI, including a technique called dynamic nuclear polarisation.
He said both methods offered the potential for MRI to produce images to rival those produced by PET scanning - without the need to subject the patient to a dose of radiation.
"It is very early days, but MRI has suffered from sensitivity issues, and new approaches which might allow us to probe the body's metabolism more deeply are potentially an exciting development."