Breaking the temperature barrier

With an advanced ERC grant, Thoralf Niendorf’s group will aim ultrahigh-field MRI at a critical, yet largely unexplored dimension of life


Temperature is one of the most rigidly controlled aspects of life, as seen by the very narrow range maintained in the tissues of warm-blooded animals. The heat briefly rises through fevers and inflammations as a part of immune responses to infections. But there has been a major obstacle to exploring this crucial dimension of life: scientists have not had a method to alter temperatures within living tissues.

Soon that may change thanks to an advanced ERC grant just awarded to Thoralf Niendorf’s group and his team, who work at the high end of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology. “Every time a doctor takes an image using MRI, there’s a generation of heat,” Niendorf says. “The unknown impact of this has led to strict regulations governing the amount that can reach patient tissues. We’re hoping to take this side effect and turn it into a tool for research, new forms of diagnosis, and hopefully even therapies.”

That will require an instrument which can focus exact amounts of energy on precise, microscopic targets inside animal bodies. The group has found a way to build it: start with a new ultrahigh-field MRI instrument, then add a custom-designed array of radiofrequency transmitters to shape and focus its powerful magnetic field. The scientists have already worked out the theory and tested designs; now, with the new grant, they can build the machine.

At that point they will enter uncharted scientific territory. The first projects will involve thermal phenotyping studies – a term coined by the group – carried out in collaborations with scientists working on a range of systems. The goal is to determine whether various tissues have unique thermal properties that can be detected by MRI and might have diagnostic value. The next step will be to observe how tissues respond to highly focused increases in temperature. Disease-related processes may be susceptible in ways that could usher in new MRI-based therapies. A unique feature of this strategy would be the ability to deliver a treatment and monitor its effects simultaneously, using the same instrument.

Another part of the project will involve an ongoing collaboration with scientists in Sydney, Australia and Berlin who are building temperature-responsive polymers to deliver drugs or other molecules. These “nano-vehicles” can be introduced into the body, where they remain inactive until heated. They can be loaded with several substances which are released at different temperatures upon activation through MRI. The interest for research is that scientists could alter tissues in a step-wise manner, to control complex processes over time. And the same strategy could be used to strike a disease with successive blows, targeting different weaknesses.

“Planning this project has already drawn together a group of people with diverse expertise,” Niendorf says. “We’re excited about exploring this dimension of life in a truly interdisciplinary way. We can’t predict what we’ll find. But the fact that organisms keep temperature under such tight control hints at vitally important functions across the body.”


The original version of this article was published on the MDC website and can be seen here.


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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example

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