Scanning technique could map trace elements in the body

Australian scientists are developing a medical scanning technique borrowed from geological analysis to map metals and trace elements in the body.

It is hoped the map will give new insights into the role that metals play in disease — an understudied field.

The imaging technology and resulting research programme are the products of an ongoing relationship between the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) and Agilent Technologies, a measurement company with a focus on life sciences and chemical analysis.

The first project aims to build an elemental atlas of a mouse brain to gain insights into the role that metals play in degenerative neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

‘What we can do is image the metal distribution and see what happens to, say, iron, copper, zinc, manganese and other elements,’ said Prof Phil Doble of UTS.

Another project will look at trace of elements in the body using a technology called inductively coupled mass spectrometry. Doble and his team are investigating whether changes to normal trace elements levels could signal the presence of diseases, including a range of cancers.

‘Certain diseases cause disequilibrium in these trace elements, so gaining a better understanding of how trace elements behave and react could set the scene for the development of some really sophisticated diagnostic tools,’ Doble said.

The instruments behind inductively coupled mass spectrometry technology were originally created for geological research. However, Doble saw the potential for healthcare applications and, working with Agilent, reconfigured the equipment to create a novel technology.