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The molecular cage holds the xenon, while the target unit (orange) allows it to selectively bind to the desired target molecule.  (Source: Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley)

When the molecule finds its target, the cryptophan cage starts to convert polarized xenon gas to non-polarized xenon. The proess is temperature dependent, which can improve the accuracy of the detection.  (Source: Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley)

The team that developed the new technology includes team leader Leif Schröder (left) with Monica Smith, who holds a probe housing a phantom target, and Tyler Meldrum, holding a model of a biosensor's cryptophane cage  (Source: Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley)
Peeking inside the human body just got a little bit easier

Some very complex, but very important research breakthroughs have recently taken place at the labs of Alexander Pines and David Wemmer at Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley.  The new breakthroughs revolve around the process of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).  MRIs are valuable diagnostic tools, helping to reveal detailed information on neurological, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and oncological structure and health.  This in turn allows doctors to diagnose tumors and various other maladies.

The main problem with MRIs is that they’re slow, force the patient to lie still, and lack resolution.  The alternative is to take a biopsy of the possibly affected tissue, but many chemical tests must be done to analyze it.  Now a new method in essence lets a highly accurate MRI, thousands of times more precise to be conducted on biopsies, allowing individual molecules to be identified, and largely eliminating the need for multiple tests.

Tradition MRI devices rely on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) imaging; a process by which RF radiation is sent, setting molecules spinning due to their odd number of protons.  Depending on the nearby structures, their spin will be altered.  RF radiation is subsequently emitted from the spinning molecule, revealing if it spins "up" or "down".  By measuring the number spinning up versus down, the nearby structures attached can be determined.  In MRIs the spin of the molecules is traditionally enhanced used a magnetic field.

Typically, MRIs measure spin from hydrogen atoms, an abundant element in the human body, which is largely composed of hydrocarbons.  Traditional biopsy methods typically rely on chemical indicators, which change color when they detect a specific target molecule.

The new method combines NMR/MRI technology with biopsy analysis.  The key is to use xenon gas molecules and a special organic molecular cage which holds them.   The molecule is composed of a cage which holds xenon molecules, an intermediate organic section, and a ligand (part of the molecule which bonds to other stuff) at its end.  The ligand ensures that the molecule only bonds to a specific target.

The molecules are injected along with polarized xenon gas into the sample.  When the cage molecules find the target of their ligand, they bond to it.  The cage then begins to depolarize xenon.  This depolarized xenon is then picked up by MRI devices.  This specialized type of Magnetic Resonance Imaging is dubbed Hyper-CEST for hyperpolarized xenon chemical-exchange saturation transfer.

The rate can also be temperature controlled, to improve the process.  Also using multiple cage designs can improve results.  The end result is a much higher accuracy version of MRI/biopsy processes.  Team member Tyler Meldrum, of the Materials Sciences Division describes these benefits stating, "Slight differences in cage composition, involving only a carbon atom or two, affect the frequency of the signal from the xenon and produce distinct peaks in the NMR spectrum.  If we design different cages for different xenon frequencies, we can put them all in at once and, by selectively tuning the rf pulses, see peaks at the frequencies corresponding to each kind of cage.

While this technology will likely take a while to get to market, it will likely provide a valuable diagnostic tool.  The researchers have solved half the problem -- the detection molecule -- now the real challenge that remains is cataloguing ligands that can bind selectively to the plethora of molecules produced when stuff goes right or wrong in the human body. 

This new diagnostic tool, while very promising, like many new promising drug delivery techniques, relies on the development of target molecules which can detect cancer cells or other items of interest.  The problem won't be solved overnight, but by slow and steady research.  This is why projects like Folding At Home remain so valuable to the medical community.



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RE: Yea but...
By straycat74 on 5/9/2008 7:32:07 PM , Rating: 2
If the government supplies the citizens with health coverage, that has no direct cost to the consumers of said service, what do you think would happen? If people don't directly pay for it, it will be considered free. People will abuse it, and go to the doctor for every little problem.

What if gas were free? What kind of car would you drive. Would you bother to shut it off, lets say, in the winter when its cold?

Health care can run into shortages just like anything else.
ER's would see an increase in use, not less.


RE: Yea but...
By someguy123 on 5/10/2008 12:38:56 AM , Rating: 2
have americans really gone so far down the toilet that people automatically expect the worst? there are quite a few of us that have some morals, although I do agree that realistically there will be many people abusing the system. what about canada? their government offers health care and it seems to be working out just fine, although I don't have any statistics about an increase in general usage after government supported health care was deployed.

the problem with health care right now is that corporations are only interested in turning a profit rather than improving quality of health care, so they push research on new drugs to sell at high premiums. HMO's are the same, and its a nightmare trying to get the coverage that you paid for as there are tons of loop holes for HMO's to crawl through.

converting heath care to a non-profit service will still allow the government to pay doctors, researchers etc well, but there would be less cut backs and no cut throat insurance agencies from corporations trying to turn a profit. I know there will always be corruption behind the scenes, but I think it would be much better than the current health care situation.

i really think health care shouldn't be a profit driven business. how can you deny a person treatment or medicine just to maintain a profit? I know in some instances there may not be enough doctors or medication to help everyone, but currently there are way too many times where a person could have been helped but they just could not afford the cost.


RE: Yea but...
By masher2 (blog) on 5/10/2008 10:52:56 AM , Rating: 2
> "the problem with health care right now is that corporations are only interested in turning a profit rather than improving quality of health care, so they push research on new drugs to sell at high premiums"

Err, the total percentage of healthcare spent on pharmaceuticals is about 5%. Meaning even if all drugs were free, costs would barely decline at all.

The problem is simple. A shortage of doctors, nurses, and other staff, coupled with an army of tort attorneys driving medical claims to astronomical levels.


RE: Yea but...
By JS on 5/12/2008 10:56:07 AM , Rating: 2
I think most countries that have "free" health care charge a fee for every visit to the doctor. Not even close to the actual cost, but something like 15-30 dollars. It's enough to make people not go see the doctor just because there's nothing good on tv, but at the same time it will not ruin anyone's economy. It obviously works ok in most of Europe.

On a side note, I believe that health care is a basic human right, along with freedom of expression and education. I am stunned that so many people in the US view it as just another service, something that you should only get if you have the money.


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