A New MRI Use for Synthetic Diamond Nanoparticles

Nanoparticles are very, very small objects that have the properties of the larger unit from which they are derived. Nanoparticles sound like something discovered by physicists, but in fact they have been used by artisans for over 1,000 years to add metallic luster to the surface of pottery and other artistic creations. Today, medical science is finding new uses for them. I came across a news article on how nanoparticles from synthetic diamonds might be used as an MRI contrast agent to detect cancer tumors too small to be picked up by current imaging equipment.[i]

You may be familiar with the idea of using a contrast agent to boost imaging of body structures. X-ray imaging often uses barium or iodine, ultrasound uses microbubbles, and in our own Center we used gadolinium for dynamic contrast enhanced MRI (DCE-MRI) of tumor blood flow measurement. I have written articles on the use of radioactive isotopes called radiotracers for PET-CT scans, which can be bonded with molecules for which tumor cells have a preferential attraction, such as glucose (see https://sperlingprostatecenter.com/introduction-positron-emission-tomography-imaging-pet-scans/ for more information).

A research team from the University of Sydney (Australia) has been investigating how nanoparticles derived from synthetic diamonds, called nanodiamonds, could be used to deliver chemotherapies to targeted cells that will take them up because the particles are also adapted to be attractive to the cells. However, the team found that the same nanoparticles could be used for detection of cancer cells by a different process. Instead of bonding them to therapeutic drugs, they first “hyperpolarize” them by aligning their atoms in a way that will “light up” on MRI. By then attaching them to molecules that cancer cells are drawn to, and administering them to patients going into an MRI, the nanodiamonds highlight the tumor cells that take them up.

One of the research team members, Professor David Reilly, was quoted by ABC news as saying, “Having those chemicals target certain types of cancers, bind to certain types of receptors, is something that’s advanced. What we’ve done is now develop that lighthouse to image those things in an MRI, thereby [allowing us to] actually see the cancers light up, without having to open somebody up.”

 Nanoparticles used in MR imaging overcome some challenges with other contrast agents that are not specific for particular cancers. Since they are nontoxic and nonreactive, they don’t cause harm or get rejected by the body. They can be formulated to not trigger an immune system or allergic reaction. New contrast agents are being researched, developed, and tested in laboratories and clinical trials. One of the appealing aspects of synthetic nanodiamonds is their relatively low cost compared with natural diamonds.

 I am excited about the new contrast agents that hold the promise of helping detect very early spread of prostate cancer. I would say that nanodiamonds have a “glittering” future when used in conjunction with multiparametric MRI.


[i] “Diamonds Could Help Detect Cancer Early” by Honor Whitman, Medical News Today. Oct. 12, 2015. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/300858.php

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