A medical contrast medium or contrast agent is a substance used to enhance the contrast of structures or fluids within the body in medical imaging. It is commonly used to enhance the visibility of blood vessels and the gastrointestinal tract.
Contrast-enhanced ultrasound (CEUS) is the application of ultrasound contrast medium to traditional medical sonography. Ultrasound contrast agents rely on the different ways in which sound waves are reflected from interfaces between substances. This may be the surface of a small air bubble or a more complex structure. Commercially available contrast media are gas-filled microbubbles that are administered intravenously to the systemic circulation. Microbubbles have a high degree of echogenicity, which is the ability of an object to reflect the ultrasound waves. The echogenicity difference between the gas in the microbubbles and the soft tissue surroundings of the body is immense. Thus, ultrasonic imaging using microbubble contrast agents enhances the ultrasound backscatter, or reflection of the ultrasound waves, to produce a unique sonogram with increased contrast due to the high echogenicity difference. Contrast-enhanced ultrasound can be used to image blood perfusion in organs, measure blood flow rate in the heart and other organs, and has other applications as well.
Targeting ligands that bind to receptors characteristic of intravascular diseases can be conjugated to microbubbles, enabling the microbubble complex to accumulate selectively in areas of interest, such as diseased or abnormal tissues. This form of molecular imaging, known as targeted contrast-enhanced ultrasound, will only generate a strong ultrasound signal if targeted microbubbles bind in the area of interest. Targeted contrast-enhanced ultrasound can potentially have many applications in both medical diagnostics and medical therapeutics. However, the targeted technique has not yet been approved for clinical use; it is currently under preclinical research and development.