Imaging airways

Researchers have successfully developed a hyperpolarised helium gas that can be used to help image the lungs in an MRI scanner.


A group of University of Queensland scientists from the Centre for Magnetic Resonance and the Department of Physics have successfully developed a hyperpolarised helium gas that can be used to help image the lungs in an MRI scanner.


Dr Marlies Friese said the University of Queensland team recently produced sufficient gas for a human subject to inhale, and when they did so, the researchers were then able to create an image of an individual’s airways.


Friese said the team had previously done similar experiments using hyperpolarised helium imported from Germany.


She said: ‘The gas is helium-3, it is inert, is not radioactive and does not react with the body so it is safe to inhale. This type of image is useful because we can obtain data on gas flow and breathing. It can show how gases flow in the lung, and whether regions of the lung are ventilated normally, abnormally or not at all.’


Friese added that when imaging the lung or other areas where the water content was low, conventional MRI had proved inadequate.


She said: ‘Hyperpolarised helium MRI uses a special technique through which the nuclear magnetic moments of helium atoms are aligned so that MRI signals are enhanced by up to six orders of magnitude.


‘The hyperpolarised effect is relatively short lived –  it lasts up to 80 hours depending on how the gas is stored and transported, with the effectiveness decreasing during that time.’


In the future, the method could potentially be used for diagnosis and monitoring of respiratory disease within a clinical setting.