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Atomic-sized MRI uses quantum bits to help discover new drugs

Existing scanning techniques often affect the molecules being studied.

Researchers have used quantum computing tech to miniaturize a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, making it small enough to pick up the structure of single biomolecules without damaging them or losing information in the process. This could make it a key tool for drug discovery and other biotech research.

Scientists at the University of Melbourne, lead by Professor Lloyd Hollenberg, used atomic-sized quantum bits (usually used inside quantum computers), to act as quantum sensors to image each atom that makes up more complicated bio-molecules. "By using quantum sensing to image individual atoms in a bio-molecule, we hope to overcome several issues in conventional biomolecule imaging," Prof Hollenberg said.

Current techniques involve using a crystal of the molecule that needs to be imaged, and X-ray diffraction to pick up the molecule's average structure. Both parts of this can lead to important information getting dropped in the process. Some bio-molecules can't be crystallized either, according to the news release.

"In a conventional MRI machine large magnets set up a field gradient in all three directions to create 3D images; in our system we use the natural magnetic properties of a single atomic qubit," says University of Melbourne PhD researcher Mr. Viktor Perunicic. In short, atomic quantum bits make great nano sensors. "The construction of such a quantum MRI machine for single molecule microscopy could revolutionize how we view biological processes at the molecular level, and could lead to the development of new biotechnology and a range of clinical applications," added Professor Hollenberg.

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