Professor Malcolm Levitt. Photo: University of Southhampton
New research from the University of Southampton
could lead to enhanced MRI scans, producing brighter and more precise images,
and potentially allowing the detection of cancerous cells before they cause
Professor Malcolm Levitt of the University of Southampton, and co-workers, have been
awarded a grant from the European Research Council to support research into
enhanced nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). NMR is the physical principle
underlying MRI scanning, which is used routinely to detect abnormalities such
as tumors. The long-term aim is that this research will lead to a range of
clinical applications, including the early detection of cancer.
NMR signals are inherently very weak.
However, methods have been developed recently which lead to substances
exhibiting a phenomenon called hyperpolarization, and which give rise to NMR
signals that can be more than 100,000 times stronger than normal. The problem
is that this incredible enhancement only 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,
often known as laughing gas. The new research grant has been awarded for a
project that involves a combination of the hyperpolarization effect with the
long-lived quantum states developed in Southampton.
The combination could give the best of both worlds—enormously enhanced NMR
signals, which last long enough to perform an MRI scan.
Levitt says: “This could have benefits
for MRI Scanning. If you have strong signals, you can detect smaller amounts of
substance that are less concentrated. 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
“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
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 piece of equipment will be a 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.