Gadolinium-based contrast agents, the gold standard in MRI to determine the health of a patient, can be improved, according to Rice University engineers who are refining models they first used to enhance oil and gas recovery.
The team led by Dilip Asthagiri, PhD, and Philip Singer, PhD, of the George R. Brown School of Engineering had studied how nuclear MR tools, commonly used in the oil industry to characterize deposits underground, could be optimized through molecular dynamics simulations. “We addressed a lot of fundamental scientific questions there, and we wondered if there were other ways we could use these simulations,” Asthagiri says.
“There are roughly 100 million MRIs taken worldwide every year, and about 40% of them use gadolinium-based contrast agents, but the way they model MRI response to these agents hasn’t changed significantly since the 1980s,” Singer adds. “We thought it would be a good test bed for our ideas.”
The results of their research appear in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics. Their paper demonstrates how limiting the number of parameters in simulations has the potential to improve the analysis of gadolinium-based contrast agents and how effective they are at imaging for clinical diagnosis. Their goal is to make better and more customizable contrast agents.
Doctors use MRI devices to “see” the state of soft tissues inside the body, including the brain, by inducing magnetic moments in the hydrogen nuclei of ever-present water molecules to align along the magnetic field. The device detects bright spots when the aligned nuclei “relax” back to thermal equilibrium following an excitation, and the faster they relax, the brighter the contrast.
That’s where paramagnetic gadolinium-based contrast agents come in. “Gadolinium ions increase sensitivity and make the signal brighter by decreasing the T1 relaxation time of hydrogen nuclei,” Asthagiri says. “Our ultimate goal is to help the optimization and design of these agents.”
Typically, gadolinium is “chelated”—surrounded by metal ions—to make it less toxic. “The body doesn’t remove gadolinium by itself and needs to be chelated so the kidneys can get rid of it after a scan,” Singer says. “But chelation also slows the molecular rotation, and that creates better contrast in the MRI image.”
The researchers note “chelate” comes from the Greek word for claw. “In this case, these claws grip the gadolinium to make it stable,” he says. “We hope our models help us design a stronger grip, which will make them safer while maximizing their ability to increase contrast.”
They acknowledged that gadolinium chelates, which revolutionized MRI testing when introduced in the late 1980s, have been controversial lately since it was discovered that patients with kidney impairment were unable to eliminate all of the toxins. “They’ve since worked out that if you have good kidney function, the benefits outweigh the potential risks,” Singer says.
The team is also adapting its models beyond interactions with water. “In biological systems, cells have other constituents like osmolytes and denaturants like urea, so we’re modeling gadolinium with these different environments to build toward a variety of applications,” Asthagiri concludes.