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UB researchers investigating whether iron makes a better MRI

Catholic Health
The centerpiece of Mercy Hospital's new MRI suite, opened in June 2019.

A University at Buffalo research company is working to improve MRIs by using one of the first materials the human race worked with: iron.

Magnetic resonance imaging machines are known for their high-tech status. For those who have been given a scan, there is the noise of clashing magnets, the narrow tube they are watched in and a lot of chemistry. The machines use gadolinium to form a contrast, so the body parts being examined show up more clearly.

Led by UB Distinguished Chemistry Professor Janet Morrow, researchers are developing an iron compound that can be used instead of gadolinium.
"We thought it was more commercially viable if we would make more of a general purpose contrast agent which would be used in a lot of different types of procedures and just replace some of the gadolinium contrast agents," Morrow said.

Credit University at Buffalo
University at Buffalo Distinguished Chemistry Professor Janet Morrow.

Morrow's team is building carbon cages around iron molecules to create better contrast inside the MRIs and remove allergic reactions. She said without gadolinium, the contrast lowers medicine's ability to see.

"It means you can't see that tumor. You can't use the contrast agent to help you verify the progress of a disease like multiple sclerosis," she said. "And so people that have kidney problems or even heart problems, kids, for example, pregnant women, can't be given gadolinium."

Iron is different, because there is so much in the human body already and so much in the world.

"It's cheap. You don't have to try to get the lanthanide from China. Right now, it's kind of the company that markets most of the lanthanides," Morrow said. "And also in terms of waste in the environment, you get gadolinium around hospitals and your water system and rivers and lakes."

Morrow is doing her research with the university and with her university spinoff private company Ferric Contrast. The research is going well enough that the company received a $750,000 National Science Foundation research grant.

The work is far from getting into the scanners, but there is investment interest and the private company staff is getting a little larger off-campus.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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