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The University of Southampton

Chemical selectivity in imaging technique could help detect cancer

Published: 13 August 2021
Technicians working on a machine

A Southampton research project advancing nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is on the road to major breakthroughs that could influence everything from fundamental physics to physical medicine.

The project, led by the School of Chemistry’s Professor Malcolm Levitt, is seeking to be able to see deep inside an object with chemical selectivity. This ability would have implications across a wide spectrum of applications, including the ability to detect cancer. 
Professor Levitt says: “We are exploring new frontier advances in NMR which can enhance the signal strength, or the brightness of the signals, for NMR and MRI by very large factors – up to 100,000 times. We’re using a phenomenon called hyperpolarisation, which is being developed fairly intensively around the world, including by us in Southampton.  
“We are developing chemical agents and techniques involving applying pulses of magnetic fields, in order that these bright signals can appear in the presence of a molecule you would like to detect.” 
Scientists are at the midway point of the €2.7 million research programme from the European Research Council, which is called FunMagResBeacons (Functionalised Magnetic Resonance Beacons for Enhanced Spectroscopy and Imaging). 
The ability to detect certain types of cancer is just one potential outcome of the project. To do that, the advances being made will need to be able to detect a particular enzyme. 
Professor Levitt explains: “The cancer cells are attached to a matrix of tissue in the body and they produce a certain enzyme which allows the cells to cut away from the tissue and then float away in the bloodstream and metastasize. That’s how cancer manages to infect other parts of the body.  
“We would like to find a way to detect this enzyme as that would enable the possibility of localising the cancer and prevent it from breaking away into other parts of the body. One of the aims of this project is to find a way of imaging the locations when this enzyme is found by using these very bright NMR or MRI signals.” 
Read the full story in the latest edition of Re:action, the university’s research and enterprise magazine.   

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