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UPDATED: IBM announces MRI with 100 million times better resolution

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UPDATED: IBM announces MRI with 100 million times better resolution

San Jose (CA) – In collaboration with the Center for Probing the Nanoscale at Stanford University, today IBM announced a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner with 100 million times better resolution than convention MRIs – down to nanometer scales. The new device operates on samples, not large scale bodies. However, with such high resolution it has basically become a 3D replacement for the scanning tunneling electron microscope able to see proteins and viruses at scales down to 4nm.

Full details of the device will be published in today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and a video on YouTube can be seen here. IBM believes the MRI at such high resolutions may be able to “unravel the structure and interactions of proteins, paving the way for new advances in personalized healthcare and targeted medicine.”

According to Mark Dean, VP of strategy at IBM Research, “This technology stands to revolutionize the way we look at viruses, bacteria, proteins, and other biological elements.”

A technique called magnetic resonance force microscopy (MRFM), which relies on detecting ultra-small magnetic forces, allowed for the advancement. In addition to its high resolution which is comparable in resolution that of a scanning electron microscope, the imaging technique can see deep into structures and not just the topography.

According to the press release, the IBM-led team was able to visualize biological objects for the first time on MRI – including viruses. They were able to see a tobacco mosaic virus, for example, which is only 18 nanometers across, with resolutions produced by the MRI down to 4 nanometers.

Dan Rugar, manager of nanoscale studies at IBM Research, said, “Our hope is that nano MRI will eventually allow us to directly image the internal structure of individual protein molecules and molecular complexes, which is key to understanding biological function.”

Unlike conventional MRIs (which use gradient and imaging coils) on a persons entire body, IBM’s device is small scale. It uses MRFM to “detect tiny magnetic forces as the sample sits on a microscopic cantilever – essentially a tiny sliver of silicon shaped like a diving board. Laser interferometry tracks the motion of the cantilever, which vibrates slightly as magnetic spins in the hydrogen atoms of the sample interact with a nearby nanoscopic magnetic tip. The tip is scanned in three dimensions and the cantilever vibrations are analyzed to create a 3D image.”

In 1986, IBM researchers Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer received the Nobel Prize for Physics for their invention of the scanning tunneling microscope, which can image individual atoms on electrically conducting surfaces.

IBM Research is the world’s largest industrial research organization, employing 3,000 scientists and engineers in eight labs and six countries.

UPATED: January 13, 2009 – 12:26pm CST
In related news, researchers at Delft University has developed a new chemical which allows existing MRI technology to obtain better views of tumors.