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Flaws in tiny bits of diamond may lead to MRI scans so precise they can show an individual cell’s reaction to a drug in real time.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England, are exploring ways to use flaws in nanoscale diamonds for quantum mechanics–based imaging. Researcher Helena Knowles explained the implications:

Our results unleash the potential of the smallest magnetic field and temperature detector in the world.

Knowles works in the physics department’s Cavendish Laboratory and is co–lead author of an article on the research that was published online Sunday in Nature Materials. She was quoted in a university news release.

A particular nanoscale diamond defect, the nitrogen-vacancy center (NVC), consists of a gap in the crystal lattice next to a nitrogen atom. It can tightly trap electrons whose spin states can be precisely manipulated. The Cambridge researchers have figured out how to achieve electron coherence in that gap—in other words, how to sustain the quantum mechanical properties of the electrons, at least for a little more than a microsecond.

Eventually, the researchers say, this might lead to MRI scans with single-cell resolution. As a bonus, the scanner could read the temperature of that cell. Nanodiamonds have the additional advantage of being biocompatible.

“Nanodiamond NVCs can sense the change of [magnetic fields and temperature] within a few tens of nanometers,” Knowles said. “No other sensor has ever had this spatial resolution under ambient conditions.”

Dhiren Kara, PhD, co–lead author, said an imaging system based on the new technology could have applications beyond health care. “We may also be able to answer some key questions in material science, such as magnetic ordering at the edges of graphene or the origin of magnetism in oxide materials.”

It will be a long time, if ever, before such a scanner reaches clinical use. But it sure would be cool.

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Scientists pitch their research projects to funding judges whose only qualification is the ability to donate $1,000. To see why some researchers think it’s a great idea, check our Facebook page.

Related CME seminar (up to 12.25 AMA PRA Category 1 credits™): UCSF Musculoskeletal MR Imaging

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