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Dec. 9, 2015

It’s a gas: Improving MRI’s capability to detect lung diseases

Sometime in the future, patients will inhale a magnetized gas, have an MRI on their lungs, and learn if they have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or perhaps something worse.

But for that to happen, the techniques needed to magnetize the gas that a patient inhales to make the MRI image useable need to be perfected.

And that is where Michigan State University research comes in.

Jaideep Singh, an assistant professor with the MSU National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, is working with the gases xenon and helium in an effort to make them useful in the search for these lung diseases.

“If you want to image the void spaces in the lungs, you need some sort of a signal source there,” Singh said. “Magnetized xenon or helium could be that source.”

In a normal MRI, say on a knee or shoulder, the water in the body is used as the signal source. But in the lung there is very little water. Something else is needed to take its place.

“The gases are very useful for understanding lung diseases in which defects in the lungs prevent air from passing through certain parts of the lungs or prevent oxygen from entering the bloodstream,” Singh said.

The problem, he said, is that these gases in their natural state are unmagnetized which prevents them from creating these images. In order to magnetize the gases, they are mixed with a tiny amount of impurity atoms and exposed to laser light.

The laser light magnetizes the impurity atoms, which subsequently magnetize the gas atoms through atomic collisions. Singh compares it to taking a paper clip, rubbing it against a magnet, resulting in the clips becoming magnets themselves.

Currently, those two gases are used only for research and development purposes in radiology departments. “We hope,” Singh said, “to sometime soon make the transition from an R&D tool to a diagnostic tool.”

Of the two, xenon would be the gas of choice. It is naturally occurring, thus less expensive, and is more easily absorbed into the bloodstream, which offers potential uses for other MRI imaging of the body, particularly the brain.

“Unfortunately,” Singh said, “it is much easier to magnetize helium than xenon.”

Singh said it is no coincidence that his work is conducted at the MSU cyclotron lab, one of the world’s leading rare isotope research facilities.

“The techniques one needs to develop to magnetize helium are also used to magnetize the rare isotopes that are produced at the NSCL,” he said. “Same idea but different applications.”

The now-under construction Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at MSU will build on the NSCL’s research capabilities as the next-generation accelerator for conducting rare-isotope experiments. MSU is establishing FRIB as a scientific user facility for the Office of Nuclear Physics in the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.

Research about new techniques to magnetize helium published earlier this year in the journal Physical Review C.


By: Tom Oswald