Gadolinium-Based Contrast Agents: What They Are, Their Effects and Treatments | Levin Papantonio Rafferty - Personal Injury Lawyers

Gadolinium-Based Contrast Agents: What They Are, Their Effects and Treatments

Gadolinium is a “rare earth” metal or a lanthanide. It is used in superconductors, catalytic converters, lasers, and high-flux magnets.  The properties of gadolinium have made it especially useful in medical imaging technology. 

Gadolinium essentially “calms” the hydrogen atoms contained in the water of bodily tissues.  Otherwise, hydrogen atoms are magnetized by the radiation used in X-rays and MRIs, making it difficult to obtain a clear image.

First identified in 1880 by Swiss chemist Charles Galissard de Marignac, gadolinium in water-soluble form is normally quite toxic. This toxicity can be mitigated through the process of chelation, which causes gadolinium molecules to bind to a chemical agent which then allows it to be excreted through the kidneys.  This was one reason that manufacturers of gadolinium-based contrast agents (GBCAs) claimed that as long as a patient had healthy kidney function there was little danger of gadolinium toxicity.

It has now been demonstrated, however, that even patients with functioning kidneys are at grave risk for gadolinium poisoning.

Different Types of GCBAs

GCBAs come in two varieties: linear and macrocyclic.  Macrolytic GCBAs are less toxic than linear because the molecules remain intact.  This makes chelation more effective when it comes to removing the substance through the kidneys.

Manufacturers have claimed that linear GBCAs are eliminated from the body much faster, with a half-life of no more than two hours. In other words, the amount of time required for half of a given amount of an element to decay or leave the tissues.  However, linear GBCAs are far less stable than the macrocyclic form.  This means that more gadolinium is released into the bloodstream and tissues – making it virtually impossible to remove.

The European Medicines Agency currently prohibits the use of linear GCBAs. Two manufacturers of linear GCBA have voluntarily ceased marketing their products last year.

Health Consequences

Scientists have determined that gadolinium interferes with the way human physiology processes and utilizes calcium.  A Japanese study published in the Journal of Dermatological Science in April 2011 found a strong association between gadolinium and “abnormal calcification” in skin cells that generate connective tissue and enables damaged skin to heal. 

This calcification leads to the development of nephrogenic systemic fibrosis (NSF), which results in hardening of the skin and contraction of the joints.  Eventually, this condition spreads to the bones and internal organs, including the brain.  Patients suffering from NSF experience chronic headaches, bone and joint pain, and clouded mental acuity. Several lawsuits have been filed because of these side effects.

Treatment and Prognosis

Treatments are available if gadolinium toxicity is caught early on.  Chelation, the administration of substances that bind to heavy metals and allows them to be excreted through the urine, has been used in patients with mixed results. So far, no chelation procedure has successfully removed 100 percent of the gadolinium toxicity.  Furthermore, chelation can also rob tissues of vital nutrients, such as calcium and zinc.

Other therapies that have been tried include skin therapies such as saunas and Epsom salt baths.  Ultimately, while these may provide temporary relief from symptoms, they do not cure the disease.