Friday, January 30, 2015

Electron Paramagnetic Resonance Imaging

Magnetic resonance comes in two types: nuclear magnetic resonance and electron paramagnetic resonance. In Chapter 18 of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, Russ Hobbie and I write
Two kinds of spin measurements have biological importance. One is associated with electron magnetic moments and the other with the magnetic moments of nuclei. Most neutral atoms in their ground state have no magnetic moment due to the electrons. Exceptions are the transition elements that exhibit paramagnetism. Free radicals, which are often of biological interest, have an unpaired electron and therefore have a magnetic moment. In most cases this magnetic moment is due almost entirely to the spin of the unpaired electron.

Magnetic resonance imaging is based on the magnetic moments of atomic nuclei in the patient. The total angular momentum and magnetic moment of an atomic nucleus are due to the spins of the protons and neutrons, as well as any orbital angular momentum they have inside the nucleus. Table 18.1 lists the spin and gyromagnetic ratio of the electron and some nuclei of biological interest.
The key insight from Table 18.1 is that the Larmor frequency for an electron in a magnetic field is about a thousand times higher than for a proton. Therefore, MRI works at radio frequencies, whereas EPR imaging is at microwave frequencies. Can electron paramagnetic resonance be used to make images like nuclear magnetic resonance can? I should know the answer to this question, because I hold two patents about a “Pulsed Low Frequency EPR Spectrometer and Imager” (U.S. Patents 5,387,867 and 5,502,386)!

I’m not particularly humble, so when I tell you that I didn’t contribute much to developing the EPR imaging technique described in these patents, you should believe me. The lead scientist on the project, carried out at the National Institutes of Health in the mid 1990s, was John Bourg. John was focused intensely on developing an EPR imager. Just as with magnetic resonance imaging, his proposed device needed strong magnetic field gradients to map spatial position to precession frequency. My job was to design and build the coils to produce these gradients. The gradients would need to be strong, so the coils would get hot and would have to be water cooled. I worked on this with my former boss Seth Goldstein, who was a mechanical engineer and therefore know what he was doing in this design project. Suffice to say, the coils never were built, and from my point of view all that came out of the project was those two patents (which have never yielded a dime of royalties, at least that I know of). This project was probably the closest I ever have come to doing true mechanical engineering, even though I was a member of the Mechanical Engineering Section when I worked in the Biomedical Engineering and Instrumentation Program at NIH.

One of our collaborators, Sankaran Subramanian, continued to work on this project for years after I left NIH. In a paper in Magnetic Resonance Insights, Subramanian describes his work in “Dancing With The Electrons: Time-Domain and CW In Vivo EPR Imaging” (Volume 2, Pages 43–74, 2011). Below is an excerpt from the introduction of his article, with references removed. It provides an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of EPR imaging compared to MRI.
Magnetic resonance spectroscopy, in general, deals with the precessional frequency of magnetic nuclei, such as 1H, 13C, 19F, 31P, etc. and that of unpaired electrons in free radicals and systems with one or more unpaired electrons when placed in a uniform magnetic field. The phenomena of nuclear induction and electron resonance were discovered more or less at the same time, and have become two of the most widely practiced spectroscopic techniques. The finite dimensional spin space of magnetic nuclei makes it possible to quantum mechanically precisely predict how the nuclear spin systems will behave in a magnetic field in presence of radiofrequency fields. On the other hand, the complex and rather diffuse wave functions of the unpaired electron which get further influenced by the magnetic vector potential make it a real challenge to predict the precise behavior of electron resonance systems. The subtle variations in the precessional frequencies brought about by changes in the electronic environment of the magnetic nuclei in NMR and that of the unpaired electrons in EPR make the two techniques widely practiced and very useful in the structural elucidation of complex biomolecules. It was discovered subsequently that the presence of linear field gradients enabled precise spatial registration of nuclear spins which led to the development of imaging of the distribution of magnetic nuclei establishing an important non-invasive medical imaging modality of water-rich soft tissues in living systems with its naturally abundant presence of protons. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging, popularly known as MRI, is now a well-known and indispensable tool in diagnostic radiology. …

The entirely analogous field of electron paramagnetic (spin) resonance (EPR or ESR) that deals with unpaired electron systems developed as a structural tool much more rapidly with the intricate spectra of free radicals and metal complexes providing an abundance of precise structural information on molecules, that would otherwise be impossible to unravel. The spectroscopic practice of EPR traditionally started in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum and was essentially a physicist’s tool to study magnetic properties and the structure of paramagnetic solid state materials, crystal defects (color centers), etc. Later, chemists started using EPR to unravel the structure of organic free radicals and paramagnetic transition metal and lanthanide complexes. Early EPR instrumentation closely followed the development of radar systems during the Second World War and was operating in the X-band region of the electromagnetic spectrum (~9 GHz). Pulsed EPR methods developed somewhat later due to the requirement of ultra fast switches and electronic data acquisition systems that can cope with three orders of magnitude faster dynamics of the electrons, compared to that of protons. The absence of relatively long-lived free radicals of detectable range of concentration in living systems made in vivo EPR imaging not practical. It became essential that one has to introduce relatively stable biocompatible free radicals as probes into the living system in order to image their distribution. Further the commonly practiced X-band EPR frequency is not useful for interrogating reasonable size of aqueous systems due lack of penetration. Frequencies below L-band (1–2 GHz) are needed for sufficient penetration and one has to employ either water soluble spin probes that can be introduced into the living system (via intramuscular or intravenous infusion) or solid particulate free radicals that can be implanted in vivo. Early imaging attempts were entirely in the CW mode at L-band frequencies (1–2 GHz) on small objects. For addressing objects such a laboratory mouse, rat etc., it became necessary to lower the frequency down to radiofrequency (200–500 MHz). With CW EPR imaging, the imaging approach is one of generating projections in presence of static field gradients and reconstructing the image via filtered back-projection as in X-ray CT or positron emission tomography (PET). Most spin probes used for small animal in vivo imaging get metabolically and/or renally cleared within a short time and hence there is need to speed up the imaging process. Further, the very fast dynamics, with relaxation times on the order of microseconds of common stable spin probes such as nitroxides, until recently, precluded the use of pulsed methods that are in vogue in MRI.
As a postscript, Seth Goldstein retired from NIH and now creates kinetic sculpture. Watch some of these creative devices here.

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