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The delicacy of some crystalline molecules has led to a new X-ray technique that may eventually reduce radiation doses for human patients.

B.C. Wang, PhD, studies molecules. (He’s Ramsey-Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Structural Biology at the University of Georgia in Athens). X-ray crystallography—bombarding molecules’ crystalline forms with X-rays—reveals the position of chemical bonds and other important properties.

However, large molecules, which are especially important in drug development, don’t handle X-rays as well as small molecules do. In a University of Georgia news release, Dr. Wang explained:

A macromolecular crystal can only withstand a certain amount of X-ray dose before it is destroyed as a result of radiation damage. Obtaining accurate and complete diffraction data sets of these crystals is very important.

So Dr. Wang and his team tried doing several low-power scans of the same crystals (specifically, bovine insulin crystals) instead of a single higher-power scan. The weaker scans delivered the same total radiation dose as the single higher-power scan would have. They also produced much better data than the single scan. For details, see the study, published online this month (open access) in the journal Foundations of Crystallography.

Adapting this technique to human imaging could produce better-quality scans while reducing radiation exposure, though Dr. Wang cautions that such applications will not be ready for clinical use anytime soon.

Of course, there will be problems to overcome. For one thing, bovine insulin molecules are generally better at holding still than people are. And Dr. Wang’s team uses X-ray data in a different form from the familiar human X-ray image. But, obviously, such multislice technologies as CT have overcome similar issues.

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