Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine are harnessing a helium isotope to look more closely inside the working lungs - leading to early detection of diseases, like emphysema, before it becomes evident in other modes of imaging.

$quot;Up until now, imaging the way lungs function in real time has been limited by conventional methods which result in rather low resolution images,$quot; comments Warren Gefter, MD, chief of thoracic imaging in the radiology department at Penn. $quot;We are developing a way to get a better look inside the lungs by polarizing atoms - making them all spin in the same direction - with magnetic resonance, which allows the atoms to have a strong signal for sharper images.$quot;

Hyperpolarized helium gas allows radiologists to observe the lung as gas flows in and out, giving them high-resolution images of human ventilation. Combining several techniques enables researchers to measure the rate of diffusion of these helium gas molecules, which reflect the size of the air sacs in the lung. This, in turn, allows researchers to detect very early emphysema, even before it's evident on CT (computed tomography) - providing physicians with additional information in which to make diagnoses and offer treatment.

To use this extremely powerful research tool, which provides accurate and precise measurements, patients must inhale the helium at the exact right time, after it's been exposed to a laser light to make all of the atoms spin in the same direction, creating the polarized helium, which then enters the lung.

Gefter is confident that the development is a breakthrough saying, $quot;We have moved from imaging the structure to imaging the function of the lung to a scale well below a millimetre in size. It's truly groundbreaking.$quot; Penn researchers hope to translate this technique for use in humans before the end of 2007