Chemists design chemical probe for detecting minute temperature shifts in the body

The noninvasive, life-saving technique known as magnetic resonance imaging works by aligning hydrogen atoms in a strong magnetic field and pulsing radiofrequency waves to convert the response of those atoms into an image.

The field of provenance for MRI, it could be argued, is chemistry – MRI works by exploiting the inherent magnetic properties of individual atoms. What if, instead of just creating images, an MRI machine could extract detailed information about the chemistry of the body — say, the pH levels in the vicinity of a tumor, or the temperature anomalies that occur around an injury? What if the physical principles of magnetic imaging could be applied to all sorts of chemical changes, down to the level of atoms and molecules, and could give us unparalleled new insights into human health and disease?

These “what if” questions drive the work of Department of Chemistry Assistant Professor Joseph Zadrozny and his team of students and researchers. An inorganic chemist who toes the line between chemistry and quantum physics, Zadrozny has built a lab at Colorado State University whose chief goal is to design molecules that allow magnetic resonance imaging to do things that it currently can’t. In doing so, the researchers are uncovering fundamental insights into how the magnetic properties of metal ion-containing molecules respond to their environments, whether that means extremely small shifts in temperature, pH or other metrics.

“We are living, breathing, talking chemical reactors,” Zadrozny said. “If you could image that chemistry, it would be really powerful.”

Nucleus that acts like an electron

In a breakthrough toward their goal of making new magnetic imaging probes with extreme temperature sensitivity, Zadrozny’s team has published a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society that describes a cobalt-based molecule they’ve engineered to be a noninvasive chemical thermometer. They’ve used their expertise in molecular design to make the cobalt complex’s nuclear spin – a workhorse, fundamental magnetic property – mimic the agile, but less stable sensitivity of an electron’s spin. “Spin” is what gives subatomic particles their magnetism.

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