New MRI technique for diagnosing lung disease
28 October 2009
A new type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that uses Xenon
gas to highlight details of damage to the lungs is being pioneered at
The University of Nottingham. It could lead to better treatment for
people with chronic lung disease and asthma.
A purpose-built MRI research unit has been established at the Queen's
Medical Centre at Nottingham, and is equipped with a new,
specifically-adapted MRI scanner.
The new technique uses a specially-treated Xenon 129, a harmless gas,
which the patient is given to inhale. Unlike air, it shows up clearly on
an MRI scan, giving an exquisitely-detailed picture of the lungs, their
damaged and healthy areas. The new method also shows the gas being
absorbed into the bloodstream.
This will give doctors a clear idea of how well or badly the
different parts of the lungs are transferring life-sustaining oxygen.
The scans could also be used to guide treatment or to guide surgeons
performing lung reduction operations.
The diseases to be studied using the new type of scan include asthma,
lung fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These
diseases are a major health burden: for example COPD is among the top
five causes of death and disability in the UK with around a million
It is caused by inhalation of poisonous gases or particles, most
commonly in smoking, although some working environments, eg coalmining,
are also known triggers. COPD accounts for more time off work than any
other illness and places a huge burden on the health service.
At present X-rays or CT scans are used to investigate lung diseases.
But X-rays and CTs only show the structure of the lung and don’t reveal
any detail on how well the lungs are functioning. They also involve a
small exposure to radiation which can limit repeat scanning.
The MRI imaging technique to be used in the trials will use Xenon
129. The Xenon is ‘hyperpolarized’ using lasers which make the gas
particles detectable in the MR scanner. Whilst this approach has been
tried previously using Helium 3, this gas is difficult to obtain and
hence is unsuitable for routine clinical work. Xenon 129 is easy to
obtain and thus has the potential to be used widely in the clinic.
The team of scientists and clinicians at the University has won
around £3 million from a range of sources to fund the building of the
tailor-made facility at the Queen’s Medical Centre. It will also pay for
clinical trials of the technique and to develop better hyperpolarisation
equipment to supply the gas needed. A new member of staff, physicist
Professor Thomas Meersman, has been appointed from Colorado State
University to help lead the hyperpolarization research.
The project is being led by Professor Ian Hall in the medical school
and Professor Peter Morris, Director of the Sir Peter Mansfield MRI
Centre. Professor Hall said: “This research has huge implications for
the treatment and monitoring of lung disease. We are very excited to be
able to combine our world-renowned MRI knowledge with the clinical
expertise at the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham to try and develop
hyperpolarized xenon MRI as the diagnostic and therapeutic monitoring
tool of choice for lung-related diseases in the future.”