Pushing the sensitivity envelope of lanthanide-based magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) contrast agents for molecular imaging applications

Acc Chem Res. 2009 Jul 21;42(7):822-31. doi: 10.1021/ar800192p.


Contrast in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) arises from changes in the intensity of the proton signal of water between voxels (essentially, the 3D counterpart of pixels). Differences in intervoxel intensity can be significantly enhanced with chemicals that alter the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) intensity of the imaged spins; this alteration can occur by various mechanisms. Paramagnetic lanthanide(III) complexes are used in two major classes of MRI contrast agent: the well-established class of Gd-based agents and the emerging class of chemical exchange saturation transfer (CEST) agents. A Gd-based complex increases water signal by enhancing the longitudinal relaxation rate of water protons, whereas CEST agents decrease water signal as a consequence of the transfer of saturated magnetization from the exchangeable protons of the agent. In this Account, we survey recent progress in both areas, focusing on how MRI is becoming a more competitive choice among the various molecular imaging methods. Compared with other imaging modalities, MRI is set apart by its superb anatomical resolution; however, its success in molecular imaging suffers because of its intrinsic insensitivity. A relatively high concentration of molecular agents (0.01-0.1 mM) is necessary to produce a local alteration in the water signal intensity. Unfortunately, the most desirable molecules for visualization in molecular imaging are present at much lower concentrations, in the nano- or picomolar range. Therefore, augmenting the sensitivity of MRI agents is key to the development of MR-based molecular imaging applications. In principle, this task can be tackled either by increasing the sensitivity of the reporting units, through the optimization of their structural and dynamic properties, or by setting up proper amplification strategies that allow the accumulation of a huge number of imaging reporters at the site of interest. For Gd-based agents, high sensitivities can be attained by exploiting a range of nanosized carriers (micelles, liposomes, microemulsions, and the like, as well as biological structures such as apoferritin and lipoproteins) properly loaded with Gd-based chelates. Furthermore, the sensitivity of Gd-based agents can be markedly affected either by their interactions with biological structures or by their cellular localization. For CEST agents, a huge sensitivity enhancement has been obtained by using the water molecules contained in the inner cavity of liposomes as the exchangeable source of protons for magnetization transfer. Several "tricks" (for example, the use of multimeric lanthanide(III) shift reagents, changes in the shape of the liposome container, and so forth) have been devised to improve the chemical shift separation between the intraliposomal water and the "bulk" water resonances. Overall, excellent sensitivity enhancements have been obtained for both classes of agents, enabling their use in MR molecular imaging applications.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Contrast Media / chemistry*
  • Gadolinium / chemistry
  • Lanthanoid Series Elements / chemistry*
  • Liposomes / chemistry
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Magnetics
  • Nanoparticles / chemistry


  • Contrast Media
  • Lanthanoid Series Elements
  • Liposomes
  • Gadolinium