Before molecular imaging with MRI can be applied clinically, certain problems, such as the potential sparseness of molecular epitopes on targeted cell surfaces, and the relative weakness of conventional targeted MR contrast agents, must be overcome. Accordingly, the conditions for diagnostic conspicuity that apply to any paramagnetic MRI contrast agent with known intrinsic relaxivity were examined in this study. A highly potent paramagnetic liquid perfluorocarbon nanoparticle contrast agent (∼250 nm diameter, >90000 Gd3+/particle) was imaged at 1.5 T and used to successfully predict a range of sparse concentrations in experimental phantoms with the use of standard MR signal models. Additionally, we cultured and targeted the smooth muscle cell (SMC) monolayers that express “tissue factor,” a glycoprotein of crucial significance to hemostasis and response to vascular injury, by conjugating an anti-tissue factor antibody fragment to the nanoparticles to effect specific binding. Quantification of the signal from cell monolayers imaged at 1.5 T demonstrated, as predicted via modeling, that only picomolar concentrations of paramagnetic perfluorocarbon nanoparticles were required for the detection and quantification of tissue factor at clinical field strengths. Thus, for targeted paramagnetic agents carrying high payloads of gadolinium, it is possible to quantify molecular epitopes present in picomolar concentrations in single cells with routine MRI. Magn Reson Med 51:480–486, 2004. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.