Scientists have made a breakthrough in the field of medical imaging by discovering a new use for copper in the design of MRI contrast agents.

Contrary to conventional medical wisdom, which deemed copper unsuitable for such agents, researchers from the U.K.-based Universities of Birmingham and St Andrews, along with Diamond Light Source, have identified a novel copper protein binding site that shows great potential for improving the visibility of internal body structures in MRI scans.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study describes how the researchers created an abiological copper site within a protein scaffold. This new structure exhibited high levels of relaxivity, meaning it had the ability to influence the relaxation times of protons, ultimately leading to clearer and more informative MRI images.

Anna Peacock, PhD, co-author of the study, highlights the significance of the discovery, stating that their binding site demonstrated extremely promising contrast agent capabilities comparable to the commonly used Gd(III) agents. This breakthrough challenges the prevailing notion that copper is not suitable for MRI contrast agents and could potentially lead to the development of new imaging agents with fewer risks and side effects.

Moreover, the researchers note that imaging agents based on copper could also have applications in PET scans, which produce detailed 3D images of the body’s interior. The use of an artificial coiled coil to create the copper site within a protein scaffold allowed the researchers to achieve functionality and performance not typically associated with copper. This innovative approach expands the toolbox of chemistries available to protein designers, enabling the creation of new functional systems.

By harnessing the unique properties of copper, this research opens up new possibilities for creating better MRI contrast agents that can aid physicians in diagnosing patients’ conditions, the study authors say. With further development and validation, these imaging agents could revolutionize medical imaging, improving patient outcomes and enhancing our understanding of the human body, they add.