Southampton University to develop enhanced NMR for new medical
25 January 2012
The University of Southampton has been awarded a grant from
the European Research Council of €2.8 million to support research into
enhanced nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).
NMR is the physical principle underlying MRI scanning, which is used
routinely to detect abnormalities such as tumours. The long term aim
is that this research will lead to a range of new clinical
applications, including the early detection of cancer.
NMR signals are inherently very weak. However, methods have been
developed recently which lead to substances exhibiting a phenomenon
called hyperpolarization, and which give rise to NMR signals that
can be more than 100,000 times stronger than normal. The problem is
that this incredible enhancement only lasts a short amount of time —
up to one minute in favourable cases.
Research in Southampton has previously demonstrated the existence
of quantum states that have very long lifetimes — up to half an hour
in the case of the common substance nitrous oxide, often known as
laughing gas. The new research grant has been awarded for a project
that involves a combination of the hyperpolarization effect with the
long-lived quantum states developed in Southampton. The combination
could give the best of both worlds - enormously enhanced NMR
signals, which last long enough to perform an MRI scan.
Professor Malcolm Levitt says:“This could have benefits for MRI
Scanning. If you have strong signals, you can detect smaller amounts
of substance that are less concentrated. For example, some
substances naturally occur in a cell as part of the metabolism
process, but occur in greater amounts in cancerous cells. Through
this method, we should be able to detect when these substances are
present and cells are potentially cancerous, earlier than ever
“Additionally, this method could allow us to detect oxygen levels
in cells. When oxygen levels are depleted, this can mean that cells
are metabolising more quickly, which can suggest that the cells are
In addition to funding the research, the grant will allow for two
new pieces of equipment to be installed at the University of
Southampton. One will be a polarizer, which will be designed and
constructed in Southampton, and which will generate substances
exhibiting the hyperpolarization phenomenon. The second piece of
equipment will be a NMR spectrometer equipped to perform small-scale
MRI experiments, to test out the new concepts in preparation for
performing experiments on a clinical MRI scanner.
It is hoped that this research, which will run over the next four
years, will lead to the development of new tools for clinicians to
detect metabolic or anatomical abnormalities in the body.