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New Multi-Modal Contrast Agents, A Boon For Medical Imaging

To put things in perspective: The width of a single human hair measures about 80,000 nanoparticles.

In their work with gadolinium oxide nanoparticles, Watkin and McDonald started by breaking nanoparticles down into even smaller particles. Next, they successfully coated the particles with dextran, a naturally occurring carbohydrate.

The chemical coating -- which Watkin compares to the thin, outer shell of an M&M candy -- functions as a spacer, preventing the nanoparticle from undergoing a chemical reaction when it comes in contact with water. It also keeps the nanoparticles from clumping and behaving erratically.

‘The M&M analogy is really a great one because it says you can put things on the outside and you can have something on the inside,’ Watkin said. ‘And in the case of gadolinium oxide, it's really a metallic ion.’

Watkin said gadolinium oxide is a superb imaging agent because of its superparamagnetic properties -- ‘meaning that they work well within a magnetic resonance imaging machine.’

Its properties as an effective emitter of radiation sources also make it well-suited for use with a type of cancer therapy called neutron capture therapy.

‘What it means,’ Watkin said, ‘is that these little particles capture the neutrons and emit alpha and gamma rays, and that energy -- sent out from an accelerator -- is what can be used to kill cancer cells.

‘In looking at this, we both said, 'Holy … cow!' These little gadolinium particles capture neutrons at four times a greater rate than boron, and yet boron is what is (currently) used for neutron capture. This means it (gadolinium oxide) is potentially a multimodal agent’ … in other words, a contrast agent that would work with a number of different medical imaging techniques.

Among the most promising applications for using gadolinium oxide nanoparticles as a neutron capture therapy agent is in the treatment of brain tumors.


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