Warren Warren, James B. Duke Professor of chemistry at Duke, says that the novel method makes more of the body's chemistry visible by MRI.
When used for brain imaging, MRI enlist the hydrogen atoms in water to create a graphic display in response to magnetic pulses and radio waves.
However, a huge array of water molecules are needed to pull that off.
"Only one out of every 100,000 water molecules in the body will actually contribute any useful signal to build that image. The water signal is not much different between tumors and normal tissue, but the other internal chemistry is different. So detecting other molecules, and how they change, would aid diagnosis," Warren said.
The Duke researchers claim that they have been able to see these other molecules with MRI by "hyperpolarizing" some atoms in a sample, adjusting the spins of their nuclei to drastically increase their signal.
According to the team, this creates large imbalances among the populations of those spin states, making the molecules into more powerful magnets.
The researchers say that unlike normal MRI, hyperpolarization and a technique called "dynamic nuclear polarization" (DNP) can produce strong MRI signals from a variety of other kinds of atoms besides water.
Detecting signals from atoms besides water is exceedingly difficult without hyperpolarization because the signal size is so small, but "these signals are strong enough to see, even though the molecules are much more complex than water," Warren said.
His group uses the "first DNP hyperpolarizer in the South", which is installed in his laboratory.
The researchers also use Duke's Small Molecule Synthesis Facility to create custom molecular architectures.
"You thus have a signal that, at least transiently, can be thousands or ten thousands times stronger than regular hydrogen in an MRI. It lets you turn molecules you are interested in into MRI lightbulbs," Warren said.
The Duke group is evaluating the potentials for a number of possible signalling molecules, such as those involved in Parkinson's disease, osteoporosis and bladder control, said Warren.
A research article on the new method has been published in the journal Science. (ANI)