A PIONEERING lung imaging technique which could improve diagnosis and treatment of conditions such as asthma is being trialled in Oxford.

Patients at the Churchill Hospital will be among the first in the world to benefit from xenon imaging to help doctors better understand what is wrong with their lungs.

In traditional MRI scans, the lungs appear black as the space left by the air does not create a magnetic signal that can be imaged, and this creates problems for doctors hoping to get an accurate picture.

The new method involves patients inhaling ‘hyperpolarised’ xenon gas before the scan, which means their lungs can be imaged by a specially adapted MRI scanner.

Oxford is one of a small number of centres in the world licensed to produce the special xenon – a gas that occurs naturally in tiny quantities in the atmosphere.

Researcher Dr Tahreema Matin said: “For different diseases, xenon imaging would have different roles.

“For diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, part of its role would be to identify those with mild forms of the disease and show exactly where within the lung the disease is. That would then inform the treatment.

“One of the limits of radiotherapy in treating lung cancer is that it destroys healthy tissue.

“Using xenon imaging you may be able to see whether it is safe to irradiate a particular area of lung, or whether the incidental dose of radiation given to non-cancerous lung tissue in the same region will lead to significant loss of lung function.”

The trial of xenon imaging, which is the first in the UK, is being supported by the National Institute for Health Research’s Oxford Biomedical Research Centre.

One of the benefits of xenon imaging is its ability to detail how the lung is functioning, as well as its structure.

Programme director Dr Jenni Lee said: “The advantage we have at the Oxford Biomedical Research Centre is that direct link between research and clinicians.

“What we have in this centre is the collaboration between radiologists, oncologists and the respiratory team from Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust and scientists from Oxford University.”

The team plans to scan patients throughout the spring to create a series of lung images, before carrying out studies in specific lung conditions.

Dr Matin said: “We will collect about 40 images of normal lungs. That will essentially form an atlas, so when we look at diseased lungs we will have a reference point.

“Because this technique is new, we need to know what normal lungs look like. Everyone is different so we need to look at a range of patients to build up that baseline.”