The physics professors Martin Plenio and Fedor Jelezko from Ulm have yet again landed a major coup: They have obtained another rare ERC Synergy Grant, the second time in a row since 2012. The third member of the new HyperQ project is Professor Jan Ardenkjær-Larsen from the Technical University of Denmark. Over the next six years, the scientists will receive around 9.4 million euros in funding. Their goal is to revolutionise nuclear spin applications using quantum technology, from the well-known MRI scanner in hospitals to tiny sensors that can be used to study metabolic processes in living organisms.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is ideally suited to scan tissues and organs and is thus used in cancer diagnostics, for instance. Due to its poor sensitivity at room temperature, however, this imaging technique has its limitations: observing metabolic processes or chemical reactions on the nanoscale is impossible at present. Yet such applications would make it easier to diagnose and monitor the success of treatments for cancer or neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease. Hitherto, the sensitivity of nuclear spin applications such as MRI can only be increased with the use of very strong magnets.
In the course of the new Synergy Grant, the HyperQ team is tackling the challenge of taking MRI applications to the next level using quantum technology. The key to reaching new potentials in diagnostics, treatment and research lies in hyperpolarisation. This means the controlled alignment of all nuclear spins in a material sample. The more precise the alignment, the greater the magnetic moment of the nuclear spin and the MRI signal generated by it. 'Thanks to hyperpolarisation, nuclear spin applications such as MRI imaging or NMR spectroscopy could achieve unprecedented levels of sensitivity,' explains Professor Martin Plenio, Director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at Ulm University.
In order to develop such imaging methods and sensors of the future, leading scientists are pooling their expertise in the HyperQ project: This research endeavour would not be possible without their self-developed methods and technologies combining biomedicine and quantum technology.
With the principle of 'dissolution Dynamic Nuclear Polarisation' (DNP), Professor Jan Ardenkjær-Larsen has laid an important foundation. This technology is based on the transfer of the polarisation from electron spins to nuclear spins. So far, this process only works at extremely low temperatures and with strong magnetic fields. In combination with diamond quantum technology, however, the same effects could be achieved at room temperature and with moderate magnetic fields. Artificial nanodiamonds play a key role in this technology developed by Professors Jelezko and Plenio: In the colour centres of these tiny particles, electron spins can be controlled and aligned in a coherent way.
A successful transfer of this alignment to the surrounding molecules would result in hyperpolarisation and considerably amplify the nuclear spin signal – ideally by a factor of up to 100,000. 'In laboratory experiments, we have already realised nuclear spin applications on the micro- and nanoscale at room temperature,' says Professor Jelezko, Director of the Institute of Quantum Optics at Ulm University and spokesperson of the HyperQ project.
During the term of the ERC Synergy Grant, the researchers want to combine, advance and apply the various technologies. In addition to optimised control and detection methods, they plan to develop new quantum materials based on artificial diamonds. The HyperQ team is furthermore working on 'diamond chips', which have a dual function as polarisation source and detector of the nuclear spin signal. In interaction with hyperpolarised biomolecules, these sensors provide unprecedented insights into cell metabolism. This requires individual cells to dock onto the sensor surface, as this is the only way to measure the magnetic resonance signals of the previously inserted biomolecules. 'Such metabolic scans have the potential to revolutionise medical imaging and pave the way for personalised precision medicine,' enthuses Professor Jan Ardenkjær-Larsen, Head of Sections at the Department of Health Technology of the Technical University of Denmark. The HyperQ technology is going to be tested in the context of the challenges of biological and medical imaging. A practical goal is to develop cost-effective and easy-to-use magnetic resonance imaging applications that can also be used in medical practices or smaller research institutions, for example.
'The approval of the second Synergy Grant in a row underlines the excellent performance of our quantum physicists, who are regularly among the most cited scientists in the world and receive highly funded projects. Quantum technology is one of Ulm University's strategic development areas. In the HyperQ project, the researchers are furthermore bridging the gap between quantum technology and medicine,' commented Professor Michael Weber, President of Ulm University, on the outstanding success of Ulm's physicists.
Many of the techniques and ideas underlying the HyperQ project were developed in the course of the first Synergy Grant ('BioQ'). The research project also resulted in the HYPERDIAMOND project for the improvement of magnetic resonance imaging as well as the start-up company NVision Imaging Technologies.
The participating researchers were recently able to move into the Centre for Quantum and Biosciences (ZQB) on the campus in Ulm, a building that is specifically tailored to the researchers' needs. This 23-million-euro construction, which is financed by the Federal Republic, the State of Baden-Württemberg and the University, is also home to the HyperQ project.
Information on the ERC Synergy Grant
Researchers with an excellent track record can apply for a Synergy Grant with the European Research Council (ERC).
The selected projects are often located at the intersection of several scientific disciplines and regularly involve the development of new technologies and methods. As a requirement, the research problems should be such that they can only be tackled by the research team involved in the project. An independent panel of experts evaluates Synergy Grant applications in a highly competitive, multi-stage procedure. Research teams who reach the final stage in this process will be invited to Brussels for an interview. The maximum funding per project is 10 million euros for a period of six years. In 2019, 37 research teams were awarded an ERC Synergy Grant. The funding is part of the EU framework programme Horizon 2020.
Text & mediacontact: Annika Bingmann