New nuclear magnetic resonance technique offers ‘molecular window’ into living organisms

“In a way we’ve developed this molecular window that can look inside a living system and extract a full metabolic profile,” says Professor Andre Simpson, who led research into developing the new technique that uses nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology.

“Getting a sense of which molecules are in a tissue sample is important if you want to know if it’s cancerous, or if you want to know if certain environmental contaminants are harming cells inside the body.”

Until now traditional NMR techniques haven’t been able provide high-resolution profiles of living organisms because of magnetic distortions from the sample itself. The analogy Simpson gives is that it’s like being in a helicopter over a stadium while trying to talk to people at a concert down below. It’s incredibly difficult to communicate because of the noise distortion, but if you give both a walkie-talkie, it makes communication much easier.

Simpson and his team were able to overcome the magnetic distortion problem by creating tiny communication channels based on something called long-range dipole interactions between molecules. In other words, whereas before only a snapshot of an object can be given this new technique can offer a complete chemical make-up of molecules within the object.

NMR technology is able to generate a powerful magnetic field, so powerful that atomic nuclei can be made to absorb and reemit the energy in distinct patterns, revealing a unique molecular signature. Simpson’s work focuses on environmental NMR but he says there’s great medical potential for this new technique since it can also be used in medical imaging techniques like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

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