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UTSC professor developing safer, more sensitive MRI contrast agents

Professor Xiao-an Zhang received funds from the Ontario Centres of Excellence through its Market Readiness Program to further develop a safer, more sensitive MRI contrast agent. (Photo by Ken Jeones)

An MRI scan can be can be invaluable in certain situations—finding serious problems like tumours or helping distinguish between competing diagnoses that fit a patient’s history and symptoms.

The fact that MRI—a painless radiology technique—don’t use ionizing radiation, as other imaging devices do, is an advantage. It’s also a comfort to many patients, as is the fact that MRI contrast agents, predominantly based on the element gadolinium (Gd), have a relatively low incidence of toxic side effects.

UTSC Professor Xiao-an Zhang wants to make MRI scans even more accurate and the incidence of toxicity even lower.

An investment from the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) is helping things along. OCE, a non-profit research accelerator, provides funding through its Market Readiness Program to help researchers commercialize promising innovations.

Zhang, in collaboration with Dr. Hai-Ling Margaret Cheng at The Hospital for Sick Children, Dr. Timothy Scholl at Western University’s Robarts Research Institute, and PhD students Weiran Cheng and Inga Haedicke has developed contrast agents based on manganese.

“There are more than 10 million gadolinium-based MRI’s done globally per year,” says Zhang, an assistant professor of chemistry in the Department of Physical and Environmental Science. “As a chemist, I want to make a contrast agent that can enhance sensitivity in order to highlight the diseased tissue better, and also make it less toxic at the same time.”

The new agents are expected to be safer because manganese is a naturally occurring micronutrient in the body.

© University of Toronto Scarborough