NVision uses quantum technology to make MRI imaging 100,000 times more accurate, using existing machines.
A German start-up supercharging MRI imaging could save lives by allowing doctors to see more quickly and precisely whether a cancer treatment is working or not.
NVision’s “hyperpolarization” technology uses quantum physics to enhance the magnetic signal of molecules in the human body up to 100,000 times using standard MRIs.
The technique allows MRI imaging to show changes in cells at a metabolic level, which provides more information than at the tissue level and shows, within days instead of months, if a cancer therapy is effective or a tumor is spreading.
“Some patients don’t have time. A failed treatment is almost a death sentence because you don’t really have enough time to change the course,” CEO Sella Brosh told Euronews Next.
NVision’s technology aims to make MRI imaging a “completely different ball game,” he said.
How do MRIs work, and what makes this technology different?
MRIs use the magnetic signature of water to see where it is located in the body and how it affects surrounding tissues. Water in blood will look different than water in muscle or skin, resulting in different magnetic signatures that create an anatomical image of the body.
There is so much water in our body that this signal is very strong. But where MRIs fall short, Brosh explained, is in detecting other small molecules in our body, also known as metabolites.
“Metabolism is life, how we live, and how tumors and cancers live and grow, using energy,” explains Brosh. “What we’re doing is allowing MRIs to be metabolic imagers at scale.”
Rather than making MRI machines more powerful or sensitive, NVision’s technology focuses on amplifying the signal from these metabolites and therefore making them easier to read by existing machines.
The start-up chose a metabolite, pyruvate, which is an important sugar that occurs in cancers. What NVision does is take this sugar, and manipulate the nuclear spins on its carbon atoms, to enhance the molecule’s magnetic signal 100,000 times over a standard MRI.
“What MRI picks up is actually these spins on the surface of the atoms,” said NVision CTO Ilai Schwartz. “The problem with an MRI is that most of the spins are not focused in one direction, and then you spin them all and they’re well processed together. You have some that are on top, some that are on bottom, and they cancel each other out”.
“What we do for our particular sugar is we orient all of them — or almost all of them — in one direction,” he explains.
Sound complicated? Imagine trying to count the little toy soldiers scattered all over the floor. If they are all standing in a neat and straight line, it is easier to count them.
Like Google Street View for cells
Not only is it easier for MRI to pick up these signals, but it can also interpret more information from them.
An analogy for that extra layer of information is the difference between using Google Maps and Google Street View. On the map, a street is just a line. But if you zoom in and explore it like in Google Street View, you can see what it really looks like, what looks good and what doesn’t.
Making metabolites appear on MRI imaging is very important; it allows health professionals to monitor how the body is processing them and where things are not working the way they should.
When pyruvate enters normal cells, some of it is converted to lactate, but only a small amount. Cancer cells, however, create more lactate than normal. Seeing this overproduction of lactate can allow doctors to confidently identify a tumor and see where it is growing.
“In real-time you’re monitoring the sugar as it enters the cell and turns into other metabolites,” Brosh explains. “It’s a whole new dimension that MRI can give you”.
Think of the MRI as a snapshot showing cars in a car park. They still are, so we see what they look like, but we don’t know anything about how they work. But give them gas and watch them drive, and you’ll see things go wrong, which don’t stick to their lane or which speed up and cause hazards.
“That’s exactly what we do here. We’re giving the cells fuel, and seeing how they use it,” Brosh said.
Is it safe?
In its laboratories in Ulm, Germany, NVision prepares this “quantum sugar” and purifies it so that it is safe for injection.
“These are all naturally occurring substances in the body, and they’re injected under normal physiological conditions, so it’s completely harmless,” said Anna Parker, NVision’s senior director of NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) hyperpolarization.
He added that the big advantage of MRI is that it’s harmless, and you can do one as many times as needed without causing damage over time, unlike a PET-CT scan or X-ray that exposes the you to radiation.
But the polarizing effect of NVision technology only lasts a few minutes, so it needs to be done before an MRI scan.
All a health worker needs to do is place a vial of NVision’s “quantum sugar” into the hyperpolariser. The machine uses parahydrogen to supercharge the liquid in less than two minutes, after which it is ready to be injected into a patient.
NVision said some of the world’s leading cancer research centers have tested its technology, including Memorial Sloan Kettering, MD Anderson and Mass General (Massachusetts General Hospital) in the US, and University College London, Cambridge and ETH Zurich in Europe. The first systems will be purchased and delivered in the first quarter of 2024.
Getting cancer, but also Alzheimer’s
General Electric has developed a rival hyperpolarization technique that is already in use, but it requires very low temperatures, unlike NVision, which is also more compact.
The German start-up therefore hopes that it can quickly scale to get hundreds of thousands of patients to use its technology, following a “Nespresso model” where it provides both polarization machines and kits (the equivalent of coffee pods) to inject. in each patient.
Cancer is NVision’s main target right now, but it says the ability to track metabolism with imaging could help detect many other conditions, such as heart disease, neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, and even those rheumatology disease, even before their symptoms become apparent. .
“We believe that all these diseases are preceded by a change in metabolism,” said Brosh.
NVision is also exploring ways in which the tech can help see how new organs are harvested after transplant, and how it can be used as a powerful chemical analysis tool using NMR spectroscopy. In simple words, it can help scientists identify a mixture of unknown molecules by analyzing their chemical fingerprints.
“It’s the backbone of many different types of scientific research, so we hope that we can also bring a whole new way of doing NMR spectroscopy and chemical analysis,” Parker said.