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Artificial atoms are the key to a new magnetic imaging technique that promises such incredible resolution and sensitivity that it could allow the scanning of individual cells.

Researchers from the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona, Spain, working with the Spanish National Research Council and Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, came up with the technique. They explain it in an article published online this week in Nature Nanotechnology.

Individual atoms are highly sensitive to their environment and can detect even the very weak electromagnetic fields generated by biological molecules. But to work with them, researchers must cool them to near absolute zero. That makes using them for imaging a bit impractical.

The ICFO researchers got around that problem by creating their own artificial atoms. They doped diamond nanoparticles with introgen impurity. “This impurity has the same sensitivity as an individual atom but is very stable at room temperature due to its encapsulation,” said Romain Quidant, PhD, an ICFO professor. “This diamond shell allows us to handle the nitrogen impurity in a biological environment and, therefore, enables us to scan cells.”

Dr. Quidant was quoted in an ICFO news release distributed via EurekAlert!.

The researchers manipulate the artificial atoms with laser light, which acts like infinitesimally small tweezers, holding the artificial atoms near whatever object is being scanned.

Michael Geiselmann, a doctoral student at ICFO and lead author of the study, said:

Our approach opens the door for the performance of magnetic resonances on isolated cells, which will offer new sources of information and allow us to better understand the intracellular processes, enabling noninvasive diagnosis.

Spoken like someone working on his thesis. What he really meant was: “This is so cool! We’ll be able to image individual cells! Can you imagine the kinds of things we’ll be able to learn? I am stoked!”

The technique seems to be at the proof-of-concept stage, so cellular scanners won’t be showing up in clinics anytime soon. We’ll keep an eye out for developments.

Related seminar: UCSF Radiology Review: COMPREHENSIVE IMAGING

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