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Innovative contrast agents for more… – Information Centre – Research & Innovation


EU-funded researchers have developed an innovative and ‘smart’ prototype contrast mechanism for use in medical imaging that could provide doctors with important new insights to help diagnose injury and disease.

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Updated on 17 July 2020

The EU-funded CONQUER project focused on enhancing and expanding the versatility of contrast agents. These are substances that can be administered prior to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to more clearly and precisely distinguish different tissues and fluids in the body: from muscle, cartilage and nerves to cancer tumours and the movement of blood through arteries, veins and the brain.

The technology is indispensable for understanding and diagnosing disease as well as developing new treatments. However, the use of contrast mechanisms in MRI scans has been limited because of time and cost factors, as well as concerns about exposure to some agents such as those based on the rare-earth element gadolinium.

The CONQUER team therefore sought better and smarter alternatives, including contrast agents that can be turned on or off remotely by adjusting magnetic fields in order to make scans of different tissues more precise and versatile.

‘We have provided a proof of principle for a new contrast mechanism that offers two advantages. We now have the potential to switch the contrast on and off, and we use an alternative agent to gadolinium about which there is open debate around potential toxicity issues,’ says project coordinator Hermann Scharfetter at Graz University of Technology in Austria.

The CONQUER team’s research focused on a versatile contrast technique called ‘quadrupole relaxation enhancement’ which works on the basis of how signals generated by the spins of protons inside tissues decay, or ‘relax’, over time as they interact with the contrast agent. Instead of gadolinium-based substances, the CONQUER team applied novel bismuth-based agents.

‘We have proven for the first time that quadrupole relaxation enhancement of solvent protons by the spin of bismuth nuclei is possible in liquids. This opens up novel avenues for further research in this area,’ Scharfetter says.

To support the use of new contrast agents, the project partners also developed new tools for MRI scanners, including novel components that have been fitted experimentally to a clinical 3T MRI scanner, and which have resulted in a patent application.

Scharfetter and his team are continuing research in the area with new projects in the pipeline, driving forward promising areas of study focused in particular on optimising nanoparticles in novel contrast agents. This ongoing work could significantly enhance the ability of MRI technology to generate a deeper understanding of disease and even more efficient and accurate diagnoses for patients.


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