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Revolutionary Australia first study to accurately assess severe asthma

Research News
Wednesday, May 4, 2016 - 1:15pm
A Melbourne-based research team is investigating a technique known as helium MRI scanning to better diagnose severe asthma, which will ultimately save lives. The test gives a clear and far more detailed view of the condition than current diagnostic measures. The new information will help inform improved treatment options for severe asthma sufferers. Remarkably, the technique uses gas that is currently used to build chemical weapons.

One in ten Australians is affected by asthma. Alarmingly 0.3 per cent which equates to 1.5 per 100,000 of all deaths in Australia is caused by severe asthma every year.

The research group behind the project is led by Professor Frank Thien from Box Hill Hospital, Professor Bruce Thompson from Alfred Hospital and child asthma expert, Associate Professor Phil Robinson from Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI).

MRI scanning requires tissue to be dense, allowing clinicians to get a clear picture. Because human lungs are not made up of dense enough tissue, it has been previously difficult to see lungs via MRI scanning. As part of the new technique, Helium 3 MRI scanning, the patient inhales a magnetised gas called Hyperpolarised Helium, giving a clear vision of the affected lung.

Helium 3 MRI scanning is currently being used in several European centres investigating forms of lung disease. Hyperpolarised Helium gas has been used in over 2000 patients worldwide and has received ethics committee approval.
It is a difficult and expensive process to obtain Helium 3 because it is a by-product of nuclear fission which is associated with the production of nuclear weapons. The gas is purchased from the United States Energy Commission. It is then transported to Germany where it is highly energised (hyperpolarised), increasing the gases efficiency and density. Finally it is transported to Australia in a gas tight magnetic field and inhaled by the patient, giving a clear view of the patient’s lungs.

Patients have previously had to go through often painful and invasive testing such as a lung biopsy to diagnose severe asthma. Helium 3 MRI scanning is quick, painless and allows for more frequent studies of the patient’s condition, if required.

Treatment for severe asthma is currently only generalised. According to A/Professor Robinson, this refined way of imaging the lung via Helium 3 MRI scanning may help researchers to develop more targeted treatments for severe asthma sufferers, which could help to not only to improve lives but  can also save them.  

 “While severe fixed asthma is much less common in the paediatric age group we hope that this technique will also be of use in better understanding paediatric lung disease such as cystic fibrosis and lung disease seen in infants born prematurely,” he said.

The team are the only group in the Southern Hemisphere to undertake this kind of study. They have been able to obtain a further grant to build a hyperpolarising unit at Monash Hospital, Clayton, which will allow them to continue the research.

Initial tests have been undertaken on 20 adult subjects. The goal is to be able to use this technique on children as well as premature babies who often have lung issues.