New findings published earlier this year in Scientific Reports offer new hope to patients who suffer from metal toxicity after having been administered a gadolinium-based contrast agent (GBCAs) for a medical scan.

GBCAs have been found to remain in patients’ systems regardless of whether or not they have impaired kidney function. This long-term exposure to the heavy metal gadolinium can cause major health problems and lead to cognitive and neurological disorders. Now, a newly proposed method of hemoperfusion (filtering a patient’s blood outside of the body, as in dialysis) promises relief to patients in whom gadolinium remains months and years after a CAT scan or MRI procedure.

Gadolinium (Gd) is what is known as a “ductile rare-earth metal” that is reactive with oxygen. Such metals (which, despite their description, are fairly common) are very useful in electronic and magnetic applications because of their unique properties. It is these properties that make gadolinium an effective imaging agent for medical scans.

Those same properties also make Gd toxic when it remains in the body for too long a period. One of the complications that result from Gd toxicity is known as nephrogenic systemic fibrosis, which causes the skin to harden and take on an almost wood-like texture. It can also cause neurological problems that manifest as pain and burning sensations all over the body. Originally, it was believed that the only patients who were in danger for gadolinium deposition disease were those with impaired kidney function; however, research in recent years has found that even patients with healthy kidneys are at risk.

This new, experimental method of Gd removal from the body was developed by a team from Oregon and Washington, including biomedical engineers from Oregon Health and Science University working in conjunction with PDX Pharmaceuticals and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Their strategy employs a cartridge of porous silica beads activated with a chelating agent known as hydroxypyridinone. Chelators of the hydroxypyridinone class are commonly used to treat patients who suffer from hemochromatosis, a disorder in which the patient’s body absorbs too much iron from food, leaving them vulnerable to organ damage, heart disease, and cancer.

When used in laboratory rats with impaired kidney function, the new method of Gd removal was found to be nearly 250 percent more effective than the current method using activated charcoal.

The authors of the study caution that while their results are promising, there is much yet to be learned about how Gd causes toxicity in the human body before their proposed method can be successfully developed for the treatment of human subjects.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.