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NSF Grant Awarded for Nanotech Color-Enhanced MRI Scans

Li Sun (University of Houston)

Li Sun (University of Houston)

An engineering faculty member at University of Houston received a grant from National Science Foundation (NSF) for research on a process that adds color to the standard black-and-while MRI image. The three-year, $300,000 grant supports the work of mechanical engineering professor Li Sun (pictured left), as well as colleagues at Houston and the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Magnetic resonance imaging is a widely used radiology technique that provides detailed maps of internal tissues, but can be difficult to interpret because the images are in black and white. Sun’s research focuses on a new class of contrasting agents that use iron nanoscale structures to add color to MRI images. Nanostructures are particles measured at nanometer scale; 1 nanometer equals 1 billionth of a meter.

Sun notes that with current contrasting agents, “you only adjust the gray scale, which makes the bright parts of the image brighter and the dark parts darker.” These new nanostructures,” adds Sun, “will allow you to use different colors to identify each type of tissue.”

A limiting factor in the planned work is the unusual shape of iron nanoparticles — like dumbells or tubes — while most nanostructures are spherical or shaped like rods. Another constraint is that the iron nanoparticles respond only to a specific magnetic frequency. These constraints have required Sun to work on a different, more economical method for producing iron nanoparticles.

Once the iron nanoparticles are produced, however, they will be coated in proteins that bond only with certain types of cells that enable clinicians to associate the different coated nanoparticles with specific types of tissues.

A radiologist would most likely inject a liquid with the coated nanoparticles into a patient. The MRI machine would be programmed to scan at the magnetic frequencies assigned to the different nanostructures injected into the patient. Each type of nanostructure would be associated with a particular color — e.g., red for a ligament and blue for bone. After the scans are completed, the radiologist can combine the individual scans into a single, color-coded image.

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