Electrical and Electronic Engineering
Exploring the Wonders of Life through Electronic Eyes
Hiroshi Hirata , Professor
Graduate School of Information Science and Technology (Bioengineering and Bioinformatics Course, Department of Electronics and Information Engineering, School of Engineering)
High school : Niigata Prefectural Shibata Commercial Senior High School
Academic background : Doctorate from the Tokyo Institute of Technology
- Research areas
- magnetic resonance imaging
- Research keywords
- electron spin, imaging, electromagnetic waves
What is your goal?
I have been developing methods to visualize target molecules in small animals as images through electronic eyes. My recent focus has been on developing an imaging scanner that can visualize specific molecules (with unpaired electrons) in the world’s shortest time. Because it is extremely difficult to image molecules with unpaired electrons that react quickly with other molecules, the target molecules must be measured in a short period of time before they disappear. As is known, equipment exists to look inside the bodies of patients at hospitals, such as X-rays, X-ray CT, ultrasound diagnostic equipment, and MRI for imaging hydrogen nuclei. To make visible something that is invisible on its own is called “visualization.” Visualization technologies have greatly changed healthcare and our lives. My aim is to create imaging scanners and new measurement methods that can help researchers clarify the causes of diseases and develop new drugs.
Fig. 1 Create an image based on the distribution of electrons
Fig. 1 illustrates a doll recalling an image of spinning electrons. This doll represents a method or a device that can visualize something invisible. To carry out experiments that no one has conducted before, you have to develop new methods and new instruments. Anyone would be extremely happy to become the first in the world to succeed in conducting an experiment using such equipment. My long-term goal is to contribute to the fields of life science and medicine through electrical engineering. We may see advances that are beyond our imagination 10 years from now.
What equipment do you use and what experiments do you carry out?
I use instruments for measuring how electromagnetic waves are absorbed by samples inserted inside a magnet. Known as an electron spin resonance spectrometer, this imaging scanner can measure target molecules in the shortest period of time in the world. Equipment with this level of performance is not commercially available. Therefore, we assembled the equipment ourselves. Photo 1 shows our imaging scanner. This scanner has been designed to allow us to make measurements inside the heads of mice. Fig. 2 is an example visualization of an aqueous solution filled in a glass tube (with target molecules dissolved in water). The left panel shows the glass tube as a whole, while that on the right shows a cross-section of the glass tube. Although we do not cut glass tubes in reality, we can view inside the sample being measured. While this example uses a glass tube, in the case of humans and animals, we never cut the stomach to take a look when making a diagnosis. It is very important for one’s health to be able to obtain the necessary information in such a non-invasive manner.
Fig. 3 illustrates experimental data that visualizes where the drug injected into an animal (rat) moves over time. In this figure, drug molecules as seen from a cross-section of the rat are visualized.
Fig. 3 A drug injected into an animal spread across the body
The figure shows how the drug spread through the body to finally accumulate in the bladder. As described above, visualizing the distribution of specific molecules within an animal is called molecular imaging, and further developments in this field are expected to occur in the future. While molecular imaging using light, electromagnetic waves, and X-rays exists, I conduct molecular imaging by observing electrons using electromagnetic waves. To produce this kind of image involves various components, such as electronic circuits for measuring the physical phenomena of electrons, including the absorption of electromagnetic waves, and a computer program for producing images from the measured data.
What is your next goal?
Up until now, my main focus has been to develop measurement methods and instruments. In the near future, I would like to study disease and develop new drugs together with medical and pharmaceutical researchers, working on projects that will make people healthy and happy.