Would You Like Tea with Your MRI?

So there are days and there are days!

My husband and I are caring for two very wonderful older relatives; they are sisters, and both live in the same assisted living community. One day last week, we ended up running the gamut—assisted living facility → rehab facility → assisted living facility → urgent care facility → hospital #1 ER → hospital #2 admitting—as one sister was being discharged from rehab while the other was requiring medical attention and diagnostic tests, eventually being admitted to the hospital. When, around 11 pm, a thoughtful nurse offered me a cup of ginger tea, I could’ve hugged her!

Both sisters are now happily back at home and doing well, but in reflecting upon this recent experience, I realize anew how vital it is for the medical team to know exactly what they are dealing with before they can take action. There is a dizzying array of tests that can be performed, including MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging.

Now MRIs are not undertaken lightly—the machine is notoriously noisy (think loud, obnoxious clanging and knocking) and expensive—so when they are ordered, a compelling need is driving that decision. And clearly, the medical team wants to glean as much information as possible from the resulting images.

So two questions come to mind:

1. What actually is MRI?

2. What on earth does this have to do with tea??!

First, MRI creates a 3D image, using a magnetic field and radio waves. Simply put, the powerful magnetic field causes the body’s protons (the positive electric charge particles that are inside atoms) to align. Next, radio waves are used to disrupt that alignment. When the radio waves are stopped, the protons realign to the magnetic field—but the protons of each type of body tissue emit distinct radio signals as they realign at their unique rate. A receiver picks up these signals and generates detailed images of the tissues.

To enhance the contrast of these images, various agents may be used—and here’s where the tea comes in!

tea leavesA contrast agent travels to target cells and then alters the realignment time of those cells—which increases the contrast between them and surrounding tissue (the targeted cells may show up brighter). For example, when looking at the liver, it is necessary to differentiate between normal and abnormal tissue. Using superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles (SPIONs) as an agent increases contrast—but because it can be difficult to get these particles to go to where they should be in the body, they are coated with something that facilitates their movement . . . while not being toxic or altering the properties of the core iron oxide particles.

Green tea contains phenols, or tea catechins, which enable the plants to grow, reproduce, and fend off pathogens; their anti-oxidant properties help protect against disease by bonding with, and hence neutralizing, damaging free radicals. In a recently published study,* a team of scientists made use of these properties.

Because the naturally occurring green tea (GT) polyphenols react with the iron oxide nanoparticles, the researchers coated the SPIONs with the tea polyphenols. The resulting GT-SPIONs are water soluble, stable, and non-clumping, which allows them to attach to the target tumor cells, thereby increasing the contrast between normal and abnormal cells on the MRI image. These promising studies in mice will hopefully result in improved imaging—which would allow greater understanding and, ultimately, more informed treatment decisions.

And so today I want to thank all of those who tenaciously conduct research studies that impact our means of diagnosis, our treatment of disease and injuries, our understanding of how our bodies work. Research means a whole lot of dead ends and endless repetition, thinking and rethinking, perseverance, hard work, and, often times, simply providing the foundation for future research that will bring an idea to fruition.

It is quite amazing to think that tea—a most welcome and revitalizing drink for me while sitting in a hospital room—is potentially a powerful tool in medical diagnostic testing as well!

*Lisong Xiao, Marianne Mertens, Laura Wortmann, Silke Kremer, Martin Valldor, Twan Lammers, Fabian Kiessling, and Sanjay Mathur, “Enhanced In Vitro and In Vivo Cellular Imaging with Green Tea Coated Water-Soluble Iron Oxide Nanocrystals,” Applied Materials and Interfaces 7(2015):6530–40.


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