When chemist Rebecca Abergel and her team at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) successfully developed an anti-radiation-poisoning pill in 2014, they hoped it would never have to be used.
That’s because the active pharmaceutical ingredient in the pill – what scientists call a “chelator” – is designed to remove radioactive contaminants from the body in the event of something horrible, like a nuclear reactor meltdown, or even worse: surviving a nuclear attack.
Now the researchers are studying how that very same pill could help to protect people from the potential toxicity of something else – the long-term retention of gadolinium, a critical ingredient in widely used contrast dyes for MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans.
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“I’ve always been interested in public health applications,” Abergel said. “Our current work could help thousands of patients who rely on MRIs to have a better understanding of where a tumor might be located and whether it’s cancerous and has spread to other organs but are concerned about the potential side effects caused by the retention of gadolinium inside the body.”
Symptoms without a cause?
In the U.S. alone, physicians prescribe MRIs to about 30 million patients every year. Unlike medical X-rays, MRI scans take detailed images of the soft-tissue composition of a patient’s organs, such as the heart, liver, kidney, blood vessels, and brain. MRIs can also help to diagnose muscle sprains and torn ligaments.
Whereas X-rays employ high-energy ionizing radiation, MRIs use a large magnet, radio waves, and a computer to cause the hydrogen atoms inside our bodies to emit tiny magnetic fields that, when detected, are used to create detailed whole-body images of internal organs, muscles, tendons, and bone.
Ever since they became commercially available in the 1980s, MRIs have long been considered to be safe. Some say that the introduction of GBCAs, or gadolinium-based contrast agents, helped to further revolutionize MRIs by improving the visibility of blood vessels within the brain and the heart.
When injected into the body, GBCAs enhance the signal emitted by the body’s hydrogen atoms during an MRI scan, which without a GBCA can become weaker and change direction over time. Nowadays, about a third of all MRIs are performed with a GBCA.
Gadolinium – a silvery-white, rare-earth metal – is one of 15 metallic chemical elements in what is known as the lanthanide series at the bottom of the periodic table. Gadolinium is a heavy metal that on its own is toxic to the body. So as a contrast agent it needs to be bound to a molecule that helps to rapidly clear gadolinium from the body, in particular from the kidneys, through urination.