People with chronic lung disease and asthma could soon be offered better treatment thanks to a new type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning technique being pioneered at Nottingham University.
At present, X-rays or CT scans are used to investigate lung diseases. However, X-rays and CTs only show the structure of the lung and do not reveal any detail on how well the lungs are functioning. They also involve a small exposure to radiation that can limit repeat scanning.
In the new technique, patients are given a specially treated harmless gas to inhale prior to the MRI scan. Unlike air, the gas shows up clearly on an MRI scan, giving a picture of the lungs and their damaged and healthy areas. It also shows the gas being absorbed into the bloodstream, giving doctors a clear idea of how well different parts of the lungs are transferring oxygen.
The gas itself is Xenon 129, which is ‘hyperpolarised’ using lasers to make it detectable in the MRI scanner. While this approach has been tried previously using Helium 3, this gas is difficult to obtain and is unsuitable for routine clinical work. Xenon 129 is easy to obtain and has the potential to be used widely in clinics.
The team of scientists and clinicians at the university has won around £3m from a range of sources to fund the building of the tailor-made facility at the Queen’s Medical Centre that will house the scanner. It will also pay for clinical trials of the technique and to develop better hyperpolarisation equipment to supply the gas needed.
The project has been jointly funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, GE Healthcare, the Medical Research Council, the Wolfson Foundation, the East Midlands Development Agency and Nottingham University.
The Wolfson Foundation has also helped to fund infrastructure developments at the Sir Peter Mansfield Magnetic Resonance Centre on University Park to enable further research into improving the process of the hyperpolarisation of Xenon 129 and also to investigate the use of other gases such as Krypton.
In other work at the centre, researchers are examining the hyperpolarisation of non-gaseous substances using dynamic nuclear polarisation (DNP), which could have important applications for the delivery and efficacy of drugs and medicines in clinical practice in the future.
Clinical trials on the use of hyperpolarised Xenon/MRI in healthy volunteers are planned to start in the next few months, followed by trials involving patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung fibrosis.