Berkeley Lab creates anti-nuclear contamination pill to help MRI patients

Marilyn Chung / Berkeley Lab/Courtesy

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An anti-nuclear contamination pill developed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2014 could help MRI patients by preventing gadolinium retention, according to Rebecca Abergel, a chemist and UC Berkeley assistant professor of nuclear engineering.

Abergel and her team initially created the pill to help remove radioactive contaminants from people in case of a nuclear accident. Although gadolinium on its own is toxic, and can cause harsh neurological symptoms as well as joint pain, Abergel said it can also be safely deposited into the human body when used in contrast dyes for MRI scans.

The research team tested the affinity of different metals in relation to chelating agents, or compounds that bind tightly to metals. To establish this relationship, the team used relevant cell and animal models, including mice.

“We spent quite a lot of time working on this, developing chelating agents, testing them and ultimately making sure we have something that is orally available — so that it can be distributed to people in an emergency setting,” said Abergel.

The researchers found the chelating agent used in the drug product was useful for targeting actinide metals — such as plutonium and uranium — and lanthanide metals like gadolinium, according to Abergel.

Julian Rees, a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley Lab and member of Abergel’s team, said the primary concerns for patients who have taken multiple contrast enhanced MRIs are neuropathy and foggy memory. Patients who are most at-risk include those who have had multiple contrast enhanced MRIs: including those suffering from chronic illness, or brain tumors in which the gadolinium-based dye is used to clearly see the tumor.

“In the case of MRI contrast dye, gadolinium is already being surrounded by molecules that are in contrast agents, and that’s what helps it come out,” said Abergel. “There are a lot of studies that have come out in the last two years that show gadolinium deposits in the brain.”

Although not all patients going through an MRI are injected with contrast dyes, Abergel said the pill would benefit many individuals.

According to Abergel, this pill can also help patients who do not have well-functioning kidneys as they struggle to excrete gadolinium.

Currently, Abergel and her team at the Berkeley Lab are studying the toxicity and impact of gadolinium depositions from contrast dyes on the human body.

“We’re trying to push forward the development of our product, and to do that we need to carry out a few more animal studies,”Abergel said. “We also need to carry out clinical studies where we test out the toxicology of our product, making sure it’s safe and doesn’t have any side effects we didn’t foresee in humans.”

Aishwarya Kaimal is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Aishwarya_R_K‏.