intestine of a mouse
July 7, 2014

‘Nanojuice’ Could Give Doctors A Better Look Inside The Small Intestine

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Researchers from the University at Buffalo are developing a new imaging technique that could allow doctors to identify and treat gastrointestinal ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease more easily.

While the location of the small intestine makes it difficult to examine the organ using traditional methods such as MRIs and ultrasound images, the authors of a study appearing in the July 6 edition of Nature Nanotechnology explain how “nanojuice” could make the process easier.

Nanojuice is formed by suspending nanoparticles in liquid, the scientists explain. Patients would drink it, and once it reaches the small intestine, doctors would strike the nanoparticles with a harmless laser light, giving them an enhanced, non-invasive, real-time look at the activity within the organ.

“Conventional imaging methods show the organ and blockages, but this method allows you to see how the small intestine operates in real time,” corresponding author Dr. Jonathan Lovell, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the university, explained in a statement Sunday. “Better imaging will improve our understanding of these diseases and allow doctors to more effectively care for people suffering from them.”

As Lovell and his colleagues explain, the average small intestine is approximately 23 feet long and one inch thick. The organ, which is where a lot of the digestion and absorption of consumed food occurs, is located between the stomach and the large intestine – as well as home to many gastrointestinal illness symptoms.

In order to get a look at the small intestine, doctors typically have to have patients drink a thick and chalky liquid known as barium. Next, they use X-rays, MRIs or ultrasound scans to analyze the organ. Unfortunately, the authors explain that there are some safety-related, accessibility and contrast quality with these methods, respectively.

In addition, none of those methods are able to provide effective, real-time imaging of the contraction of muscles that propels food through the small intestine (also known as peristalsis). Peristalsis-related issues could be linked not just to gastrointestinal ailments, but also diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and thyroid disorders.

Lovell and his colleagues used a group of small molecules known as naphthalcyanines, which are dyes that can absorb large portions of light in the near-infrared spectrum – the ideal range for biological contrast agents, they explained.

The only problem is that naphthalcyanines don’t disperse in liquid and can be absorbed into the blood stream once they reach the small intestine, making them unsuitable for human consumption ordinarily. However, Lovell’s team created nanoparticles known as “nanonaps” to address these issues. Nanonaps contain the dye molecules, but are also able to be dispersed in liquids and can move safely throughout the digestive system.

To test its effectiveness, the investigators gave the nanojuice to laboratory mice orally. They then used a technique known as photoacoustic tomography (PAT), which involves the use of pulsed laser lights that create pressure waves. When those waves are measured, they give a more detailed, real-time view inside the small intestine.

Lovell and his collaborators, which include experts from the Pohang University of Science and Technology in Korea, the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and McMaster University in Canada, said they will continue refining the technique for use in human trials. They also intend to expand their research so that the nanojuice can be used in other regions of the human gastrointestinal tract.

Image 2 (below): Patients would drink the 'nanojuice' like water. Credit: Jonathan Lovell


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