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Artificial Atoms Show Magnetic Resonance on Individual Cells

First Posted: Feb 11, 2013 12:47 PM EST

Researchers from the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in collaboration with the CSIC and Macquarie University in Australia have recently developed a new technique similar to an MRI that allows for much higher resolution to scan individual cells.

An article published in Nature Nanotech, and highlighted by Nature, ICFO Professor Romain Quidant explains how this was accomplished using artificial atoms and diamond nanoparticles doped with nitrogen impurity. Combined, they were used to probe magnetic fields such as those generated in some biological molecules.

Conventional MRI's use magnetic fields of atomic nuclei in our bodies. The response from the atoms makes it possible to diagnose and monitor the evolution of certain diseases. Yet, the conventional MRI uses a millimetric scale, and smaller objects are not given enough signal to be measured.

The new technique proposed by the group led by Dr. Quidant significantly improves the resolution at the nanometer scale (nearly one million times smaller than the millimeter), making it possible to measure very weak magnetic fields, such as those created by proteins.

"Our approach opens the door for the performance of magnetic resonances on isolated cells which will offer new sources of information and allow us to better understand the intracellular processes, enabling noninvasive diagnosis," explains Michael Geiselmann, ICFO researcher who conducted the experiment. Until now, it has only been possible to reach this resolution in the laboratory, using individual atoms at temperatures close to the absolute zero (approx. -273 degrees Celsius.)

Quidant and his team used artificial atoms that were formed by a nitrogen impurity captured within a small diamond crystal.

"This impurity has the same sensitivity as an individual atom but is very stable at room temperature due to its encapsulation. This diamond shell allows us to handle the nitrogen impurity in a biological environment and, therefore, enables us to scan cells" Quidant said according to Eureka News.

To trap and manipulate these artificial atoms, researchers used laser light. The laser works like tweezers, leading the atoms above the surface of the object to study and extract information from its tiny magnetic fields.

The emergence of this new technique could revolutionize the field of medical imaging, allowing for substantially higher sensitivity in clinical analysis, an improved capacity for early detection of diseases, and thus a higher probability for successful treatment.

To find out more about the study, see the press release

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