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The University of Southampton

Southampton researchers recognised with international prize

Published: 9 March 2022
A man working on a machine.
Professor Malcolm Levitt in the University's NMR facility

Scientists in Chemistry are part of a team that has been internationally celebrated for developing a cost-effective technique that amplifies magnetic resonance signals. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) is a spectroscopic technique used to determine the structure and dynamics of materials and living objects. A branch of NMR, and the most well-known, is MRI.

However, these processes have limits – the signals are usually weak, which means an MRI scan can take over an hour to yield the images used by radiologists. These images are usually of water since it is so abundant in the body, but not of the biomolecules undergoing metabolism in the body meaning there is a wealth of diagnostic information waiting to be accessed.

A multidisciplinary team, led by former Southampton Chemistry student Dr. James Eills, and including current Southampton Chemistry staff Professor Malcolm Levitt and Dr. Laurynas Dagys, has developed a new “hyperpolarization technique” that enhances the signals from an MRI instrument and enables it to capture the metabolic biochemical reactions within the body.

This could pave the way for more targeted cancer treatments.

The team, which includes chemists, physicists, engineers and biologists from England, Germany, Italy and the USA, has been awarded the Erwin Schrödinger Prize - Science Prize of the Stifterverband, by the Hermann von Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres*.

The prize honours outstanding scientific or technically innovative achievements in border areas between different subjects of medicine, the natural sciences, and engineering, and is endowed with €50,000.

Made in Southampton

The research originated in a project James undertook during his undergraduate degree at Southampton and later his PhD, which he also carried out at Southampton under the supervision of Malcolm, which showed new ways to achieve hyperpolarization with parahydrogen in order to increase the sensitivity of NMR and MRI.

James joined the University of Southampton in 2011 and says: “I really enjoyed my time in Southampton – I came back to Southampton in 2015 for my PhD for the opportunity to work with Professor Levitt. He is a world-renowned professor in the field of magnetic resonance, and Southampton is perhaps the best place to carry out research in this field. This is in large part thanks to the opportunities to collaborate with other scientists both internally and externally.

“The research project developed quickly and seemed to work, to our surprise, at every step of the way. I’m really proud and somewhat surprised that I was able to continue what I started in Southampton, and it’s now been recognised in this way.”

Diagnostic metabolomic imaging

The project analysed the hyperpolarization of the metabolite fumarate using parahydrogen. Fumarate is a natural biomolecule in the body and when cells metabolise, fumarate turns into malate. Hyperpolarized MRI is able to see the difference between the components.

James explains: “If we hyperpolarize biomolecules and introduce them in patients, it is possible to track metabolism in real time, thus providing doctors with much more information.

“For example, fumarate to malate conversion can be an indicator of cell death. A patient on chemotherapy must normally wait for a further MRI to see if the cancerous tumour has shrunk due to the treatment.”

“However, through hyperpolarization, an MRI could detect whether the chemotherapy is killing off the cancer cells straight away, well before the tumour starts to shrink. This means decisions could be made about their future treatment much sooner,” James adds.

Adapting the process

Despite the promising benefits of the hyperpolarization techniques, the team had to overcome a significant challenge: hyperpolarizing fumarate with parahydrogen requires a ruthenium-based catalyst, which would be toxic to the body.

Working with Dr. Dagys, a research fellow in Chemistry, as well as academics at the Helmholtz Institute Mainz (HIM) and the universities of Kaiserslautern and Darmstadt in Germany, the University of California at Berkeley USA, and the University of Turin in Italy, the team developed a process that could purify the fumarate within a matter of seconds.

Malcolm says: “This was a particularly difficult challenge to deal with. But through the interdisciplinary nature of the research team, we were able to combine our expertise and develop the process that would remove the toxins and therefore could eventually be used in patients.

“We are very proud to have received the "Erwin Schrödinger Prize - Science Prize of the Stifterverband" – this team shows what can be achieved when we work together across disciplines and national borders.”

Malcolm taught James at undergraduate level and was his PhD supervisor. He adds: “To see one of your students develop themselves into a leader of an internationally successful research team is rewarding enough, but to have that team receive such a distinguished prize is inspiring. I am proud to be a part of this team and to see what James has achieved.”

James is now working on applications of hyperpolarization techniques. He says: “I think we will discover many more applications for these techniques to study disease and other health conditions - it is an exciting time for this field of medicine.”

The Helmholtz association has created a YouTube video on the award-winning project (in German with English subtitles).

*After allegations of abuse against Erwin Schrödinger became known at the beginning of 2022, the current name of the prize is being examined by the Hermann von Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres.

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