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The Statesman


Dr. Balaji Sitharaman receives $50K grant for work on MRI contrast agents

Stony Brook continues to make improvements on the MRI for renal imaging. (JESSICA DESAMERO / THE STATESMAN)

Dr. Balaji Sitharaman, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Stony Brook University, is the recipient of the $50,000 grant from the SUNY Technology Accelerator Fund (TAF) for his work with developing new carbon nanostructure-based MRI contrast agents for renal imaging.

A renal scan is a nuclear medicine exam used to analyze the kidneys and diagnose certain kidney diseases. It uses a small amount of radioactive material with MRI scanning to image the kidneys and get a better understanding of how they are functioning.

These MRI exams use contrast agents to improve the sensitivity of the imaging technique. Sitharaman explained that typically for micro-tumors that may not be detected with just plain MRI, for example, the diagnostic confidence is improved when using contrast agents.

The research that the grant supports focuses on the use of carbon nanoparticles in the development of these contrast agents. The element manganese (Mn) is layered between sheets of graphene to give it structure and make it more effective as a contrast agent.

“What we have done is taken a few layers of this graphene, typically 4-5, and sandwiched between these layers is an isomer of the element manganese, which is a daily dietary requirement…and one of the earliest magnetic elements found suitable for MRI,” Sitharaman said.

Soon after manganese was first used for MRI, specialists and clinicians started looking into other elements that would work. The element gadolinium (Gd) was found to be suitable and put into widespread use. Currently, around 99 percent of all clinical MRI contrast agents are made of gadolinium along with carbon nanoparticles, according to Sitharaman.

However, certain Gd-based contrast agents induced a potentially fatal disease known as nephrogenic systemic fibrosis (NSF) in patients with certain kidney dysfunctions or diabetes or who are undergoing chemotherapy.

In the early 2000s, the Food and Drug Administration placed restrictions on Gd-based contrast agents, so researchers had to refocus on using manganese.

Sitharaman’s lab has been working using manganese within carbon nanotube structures, and this latest funding has allowed for more safety and efficacy studies using the contrast agent, along with working on scaling it up from the lab to practical use.

“What we found was that at least in small animals, [the new Mn-based contrast agent] has a toxicity profile that is better than Gd-based contrast agents and in a small animal model of renal failure, we found that at least short-term, up to four weeks, it does not induce NSF…10 times lower dosage gave 100 times better contrast,” Sitharaman said.

As this research continues, the goal will be to create the first contrast agent approved for use in patients with kidney problems or other conditions.

Another application of Mn-based contrast agents is that they have a longer circulation time in the blood, which would allow them to be used for not only MRI, but also in angiography—perhaps instead of CT scans, Sitharaman said.

Since the 1970s, SUNY has been known for its groundbreaking research in MRI. Early research was done at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and Stony Brook University paved the way for countless advancements in medical imaging.

TAF was launched by SUNY in 2011 as a means of “providing funding for select technologies to accelerate their development and commercialization,” according to SUNY’s website.

SUNY created TAF to complement the initiative SUNY Tax-free Areas to Revitalize and Transform Upstate NY (START-UP NY), which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo started in recognition of this research and all of the work being done on SUNY campuses. Businesses, universities and colleges partnering with the program will receive benefits in terms of tax breaks and funding.

TAF has invested over $1 million to date in technological advancements, including five new projects in the fields of medical imaging pharmaceuticals, fine chemicals, petrochemicals and refining technologies, which were awarded a total of $250,000.

“These projects showcase the level and magnitude of research conducted every day on SUNY campuses across the state and highlight the potential for forming lasting partnerships under START-UP NY,” SUNY Research Foundation President and Vice Chancellor for Research Dr. Tim Killeen said in an interview with

As research like this develops throughout the SUNY network, programs like START-UP NY and TAF will continue to support such projects in key focal industries of the future.

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