Researchers at the University of Sheffield have found an effective way to use small amounts of harmless hyperpolarized (HP) noble gases (Helium-3 and Xenon-129) to detect lung damage. The university holds the only UK regulatory license to use HP gases for lung imaging.

Patients inhale small amounts of the gases, which are hyperpolarized using high power lasers. Once the HP gases are inhaled they are imaged inside an MRI scanner. This produces high resolution images that offer information unattainable through traditional X-rays and lung CT scans. In addition, this method of imaging can be done multiple times on children, without a fear of radiation exposure.

The University of Sheffield also held the first clinical studies using this method of technology in the early diagnosis of emphysema and other smoking-related damage. Results of the studies have been encouraging and the university is now expanding their research to include the HP noble gas technology in other areas of lung research, such as early detection of Cystic Fibrosis and helping asthma patients who are difficult to control using standard medication.

Additionally, use of the Helium-3 MRI technology is in a start-up phase in the assessment of lung changes in patients who have successfully quit smoking.