Rice University researchers have synthesized a new and greatly improved generation of contrast agents for tagging and real-time tracking of stem cells in the body. The agent combines ultrashort carbon nanotubes and bismuth clusters that show up on X-rays taken with computed tomography (CT) scanners. The stable compound performs more than eight times better than the first-generation material introduced in 2013, according to the researchers.
“The primary application will be to track them in stem-cell therapies to see if the cells are attracted to the site of disease — for example, cancer — and in what concentration,” said Rice chemist Lon Wilson of the compound the researchers call Bi4C@US-tubes.
“Magnetic resonance imaging is currently used for that purpose and it works quite well, but X-ray technology in the clinic is much more available,” he said. “It’s faster and cheaper, and it could facilitate preclinical studies to track stem cells in vivo.”
Bismuth is used in cosmetics, pigments and pharmaceuticals, notably as the active ingredient in pink bismuth (aka Pepto-Bismol), an antacid. For this application, bismuth nanoclusters developed by the lab of Rice chemist Kenton Whitmire, a co-author of the paper, are combined with carbon nanotubes chemically treated to shorten them to between 20 and 80 nanometers and add defects to their side walls. The nanoclusters, which make up about 20 percent of the compound, appear to strongly attach to the nanotubes via these defects.
When introduced into stem cells, the treated nanotubes become easy to spot, Wilson said. “It’s very interesting to see a cell culture that is opaque to X-rays. They’re not as dark as bone (which X-rays cannot penetrate), but they’re really dark when they’re loaded with these agents.”
The process developed by Wilson’s team and colleagues at CHI St. Luke’s Health-Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine is detailed this month in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.