As everyone knows, cancerous tumours are a major disease of our time, a massive contributor to mortality rates worldwide and a socioeconomic burden on healthcare systems.
Currently, the diagnosis, staging and treatment assessment of various cancerous tumours rely on the PET/CT (Positron emission tomography / Computer tomography) scanner, considered the golden standard. However, this technology suffers from a significant amount of clinical limitations and disadvantages: besides being very expensive, it exposes patients to harmful ionising radiation; it requires hospitals to be equipped with a “hot lab” to handle radioactive material; it provides limited information about cancerous lesions, which do not include grade or aggressiveness. Moreover, this method requires weeks, sometimes even months, to determine the response to a certain treatment.
A viable alternative to PET/CT for cancer staging and treatment assessment came to light a decade ago, when a technological breakthrough in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) succeeded in increasing the MRI signal of target molecules by over 10,000-fold. This increase in sensitivity, termed "hyperpolarization", enables targeted molecular imaging, and it proved successful in assessing tumour aggressiveness and response to therapy. Unfortunately, this promising method is still limited by the long time required to achieve hyperpolarization and the high cost, volume and weight of the equipment needed for this purpose.
This challenge has been taken up by the University of Ulm and a spin-off start-up from its renowned institute of Theoretical Physics and Quantum Optics, named NVision Medical Imaging, which joined forces in the ambitious project QUSMI. A side result of the research carried out during two previous FET projects, DIAMANT and DIADEMS, was in fact the discovery that the controlling properties of nitrogen-vacancies (NV) centres in diamonds over the surrounding nuclear spins could also be used to transfer the NV optical polarization to other molecules and achieve first-of-a-kind room temperature hyperpolarization of a variety of molecules.
Thus, the QUSMI project aims at commercialising the first viable, non-radioactive alternative to PET/CT for non-invasive diagnosis and staging of cancer: a Diamond Hyperpolarizer that will allow achieving room-temperature hyperpolarization of metabolic molecules. The components needed in the current state-of-the-art systems will be replaced by a low-cost laser and a microwave resonator system, thus greatly reducing the costs and enabling much wider access to hyperpolarized imaging. Furthermore, hyperpolarization will be performed at room temperature within 2 minutes, instead of the 60-90 minutes currently needed. And, last but not least, this “new” molecular imaging system will be synergistic with the standard structural MRI scanners.
The main advantage of this technology will be a greater accuracy of diagnosis compared to PET/CT, as the hyperpolarized MRI will be able to differentiate tissues and stage tumours based on their metabolic signature. As a result, the patient management of cancer will become easier and more effective, thanks to the improved cancer diagnostics, staging and treatment response assessment, while global healthcare costs will decrease.
The prototype of the Diamond Hyperpolarizer is currently under development within the HYPERDIAMOND project, while the FET Innovation Launchpad project QUSMI is focusing on the commercial exploitation of the technology: by assessing the customer needs, reaching out to strategic partners, consolidating the IP portfolio and strategy and developing a sound business plan, QUSMI is placing the consortium in a position to attract private investors and paving the way for the commercialisation of this disruptive technology.
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