MRI ‘Lightbulb’ Technology

News Brief by Lushna Mehra

                   Researchers at Duke University are conducting research to determine new technology for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) that is able to record active biochemical reactions in the body.  The discovery, led by Duke Chair of Physics Warren S. Warren, was published in the March edition of Science Advances. He noted that he and his team are working with a novel class of molecules that amplifies MRI signals to aid the studying of a disease’s biochemistry. The technology allows scientists to oversee metabolic processes, like the presence of cancer and heart disease. In a strong magnetic field to which radio waves are then added, the nuclei of hydrogen atoms operate like small magnets that may be located. This process is beneficial in clinical settings to generate images of soft tissues, since hydrogen atoms are surrounded by water in the body. Though a useful technique, this method has a low sensitivity that requires large magnetic fields in order to “hyperpolarize” molecules to make them into magnetic resonance ‘lightbulbs’ that are detected as a result of a signal that is 10 thousand times the strength.  However, Warren mentions that hyperpolarization is not economical, as each machine costs nearly $3 million and most lightbulbs do not last longer than a few seconds. Due to these limitations, the researchers are trying to find out which molecules will maintain signals for the longest. Grad student Jerry Ortiz Jr. recognized that molecules known as diazarines, which are composed of two nitrogen atoms in a ring form, are able to to maintain hyperpolarization to prolong the detection of movement. The researchers expanded upon this knowledge and determined that if the molecular tags are combined with a catalyst and spin-polarized hydrogen, then the signals produced by the diazarines may last more than an hour; this technique is known as SABRE-SHEATH. Assistant professor of chemistry at Duke, Qiu Wang, mentioned that such a tag can be used on a variety of molecules, big and small, without altering the molecule itself and for much less money. Warren went further to say that this technology, incorporating a catalyst and a bulb with a hyperpolarized agent, makes creating a biomedical image spontaneously a possibility within the next decade.


Duke University. "New class of molecular 'lightbulbs' illuminate MRI: Discovery could enable  cheaper, more versatile bioimaging." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 March 2016.  <>.