A new project with a funding of £850,000 is likely to improve the current knowledge of serious illnesses like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, septic shock and cancer. The project, which is to run for four years, will include scientists, engineers and mathematicians at the University of Bath. It will examine in detail electron spin resonance imaging, a technique used in whole body scanning.
They hope that electron spin resonance imaging will eventually take a three-dimensional "snapshot" image of the chemical state of organs such as the heart. This would be an immensely important advance, and could lead to new treatments for serious illnesses.
At present instruments do not have the sensitivity or speed to do this but using the latest research into measurement techniques and data analysis could improve the sensitivity of the machinery by 100 times or more. This could, in turn, allow some images to be recorded 10,000 times faster, or with 10,000 times more spatial information.
Even relatively modest improvements in the technical performance of electron spin resonance imaging instruments are potentially very important to medical research scientists.
The Bath team will be working closely with two such experts at the University of the West of England, Bristol and Cardiff Medical School to develop the new technologies.
Electron spin resonance imaging instruments work in a similar way to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) body scanners that are already widely used in hospitals. However, whereas MRI scanners use the magnetic properties of the protons in water to generate an image, electron spin resonance instruments use the magnetic properties of electrons.
This fundamental difference makes electron spin resonance more suited to imaging chemical processes than MRI. However, it also makes it technically much more difficult, and has so far restricted its use to the research laboratory.
The project's initiator, Dr Stephen Bingham, of the University of Bath's Department of Physics, said: "The enormous potential of electron spin resonance imaging has been recognised in the scientific community for some time - however, this promise remains largely unrealised.
"The substantial improvement in performance that is necessary will not come from tinkering with current technology, so our task is to bring fresh thinking to this problem. We will be adapting several technologies that have been developed in other fields of science and engineering and applying them to electron spin resonance imaging for the first time."
Dr Bingham is working with Dr Daniel Wolverson and Professor John Davies in the Department of Physics, with Professor Dave Rodger and Dr Chris Clarke of the Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering, and with the mathematician Professor Chris Jennison, Dean of the Faculty of Science. They are working with the University's Research & Innovation Services to ensure the future wide availability of the technology through its commercialisation. Biomedical evaluation will be done in collaboration with Professor Simon Jackson, at the Centre for Research in Biomedicine, University of the West of England, Bristol, and Dr Philip James of the Wales Heart Research Institute, Cardiff University.
The project is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.