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Cover Story



Do you see what I see?

Glimpsing the future in a nanoparticle, Contrast agent developed by UTHealth researcher promises to improve imaging

Written by Rachel Christianson

Imagine the ability of an oncologist to confidently tell a patient whether or not chemotherapy would work for his or her cancer,” says Ananth Annapragada.

The nanoparticle research he is conducting is moving medicine in that direction. His nanoparticle contrast agent, or NCTX, has the potential to transform the way physicians do computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Nanoparticles are tiny, about 1/10,000th the diameter of a human hair.

Improving CT and MRI imaging

Dr. Annapragada holding vial of NCTX

Through the nanoparticle contrast agent (NCTX), Annanth Annapragada, Ph.D., holder of the Robert H. Graham Professorship in Entrepreneurial Biomedical Informatics and Bioengineering, and his lab team are creating the next generation of diagnostic and drug delivery tools. Additional applications using the NCTX are also being investigated.

Annapragada started his research in this area about eight years ago when he realized the medical need for improved imaging techniques and the revolutionary impact they could have in medical emergencies, diseases and disorders.

Clinicians use contrast agents (similar to a short-acting dye) to enhance the three-dimensional images that are produced by CT and MRI machines. The current contrast agents, administered via injection into the bloodstream, stay in a patient’s system for only a few minutes and have been linked to adverse effects on the kidneys.

NCTX uses nanocarriers to place the contrast agent into liposomes, or fat bubbles. Images taken after the contrast agent has been administered can help determine whether or not cancer-fighting nano drugs carried by the same liposomes as NCTX are able to reach the tumor. “These images could be critical in determining the likelihood of success if an imaged lesion were to be subsequently treated,” says Annapragada.

His contrast agent not only improves the quality of the images, but it also stays in the patient’s system for hours, giving physicians extended time to take their images. The agent also spares the kidneys from the toxic side effects of conventional imaging agents. The particles clear the body through the liver instead of the kidneys.

Since no liver toxicity has been observed to date, Annapragada believes clinicians will have the opportunity to use NCTX in patients with whom they may have hesitated to use conventional agents. Diabetics and those with other renal insufficiency, and individuals who are at risk for kidney failure, are good candidates for NCTX.

Better access, even on the battlefield

NCTX also will help increase accessibility for patients and doctors who do not have access to major medical centers, and even those on the front lines of war. Since the contrast agent can be used with current imaging machines, hospitals and physicians’ offices will not need to purchase new ones to produce higher-quality images. This allows patients with limited access to health care and state-of-the-art equipment to receive better diagnostics and treatments. If portable imaging machines are created, NCTX could increase accessibility for soldiers in the field.

Closer to home, the contrast agent will play an important role in improving patient care in the emergency room environment. Today when a patient arrives at the ER with acute chest pain, there are three major potentially fatal causes: pulmonary embolism, aortic dissection and acute myocardial infarction. Physicians must determine which one is the problem. This is commonly referred to as the “triple rule-out.” Annapragada says the current contrast technology does not allow physicians to test for all three of these at the same time; this consequently delays diagnosis and can increase costs and potential side effects. NCTX allows all three to be imaged simultaneously, thus allowing the patient to be diagnosed and treated faster.

“Acute chest pain brings millions of patients to the ER every year and missed diagnoses can be fatal,” says Annapragada. “NCTX has the potential to make the ‘triple rule-out’ procedure routine in the ER.”

Rachel Christianson

Rachel Christianson is communications specialist/School of Biomedical Informatics.