Duke professor Warren Warren has been awarded the 2020 Günther Laukien Prize for his contributions to nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) and its cousin, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
MRI, which uses magnetic fields and radio waves to measure signals from spinning protons, has been used in medicine since the 1980s as a noninvasive way to create pictures of the inside of the body without using radiation like X-ray or CT scans do.
The imaging technique is used to diagnose conditions ranging from torn ligaments to tumors, but its full potential to spot and monitor disease has been limited by how hard it is to detect molecules that are fleeting or only present in trace amounts.
For the past five years, Warren has been developing simple, low-cost ways to boost magnetic resonance signals and solve this problem. And now, he is being recognized with one of the most prestigious prizes in the field.
The work could pave the way to cheaper, portable MRI scanners that can be rolled onto an ambulance or to a patient’s bedside to see processes that weren’t possible to track before, or make it feasible to image metabolic reactions associated with things ranging from cancer and brain injury to heart failure.
Typical MRI scanners are capable of detecting fewer than 1 in 100,000 of the molecules in the body at the given time, so the signal is very weak.
Methods exist to make the signal stronger using a technique called hyperpolarization, but the most common approach requires cooling a sample to ultra-low temperatures in a magnetic field some 60,000 times stronger than the earth’s magnetic field, using equipment that costs as much as $3 million. What’s more, once a substance is hyperpolarized and injected into a patient, the boosted signal decays within one to two minutes, which makes it difficult to track many biological processes.
Warren received the Laukien prize together with two other researchers from England and Russia for developing ways to overcome these challenges.
The technique they developed, called X-SABRE, can create a 100,000-fold jump in signal strength with results that last for over an hour, for 1% of the cost of current methods.
And because it’s much simpler and more portable than current hyperpolarization systems, it could work with low-power magnets that could run off a car battery. Instead of bringing the patient to the MRI scanner, we could bring the MRI scanner to the patient.
While X-SABRE isn’t ready for the clinic yet, the method has been demonstrated on hundreds of different molecules so far. “The physics is still evolving,” Warren said.
In the meantime, Warren and his team are working on scaling up the X-SABRE technology so it can be used for non-medical applications too, such as detecting dark matter.
“This has great promise to revolutionize both NMR and MRI,” Warren said.
Warren is one of three winners of the 2020 Laukien prize. This year’s other recipients are Simon Duckett of the University of York in England and Konstantin Ivanov of Novosibirsk State University in Russia.
They received the award on March 9 at the 61st Experimental Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Conference in Baltimore, Maryland.
Funding for this work was provided by the National Science Foundation.