Engineered nanoparticles that respond to pathophysiological parameters, such as pH or redox potential, have been developed as contrast agents for the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of tumours. However, beyond anatomic assessment, contrast agents that can sense these pathological parameters and rapidly amplify their magnetic resonance signals are desirable because they could potentially be used to monitor the biological processes of tumours and improve cancer diagnosis. Here, we report an MRI contrast agent that rapidly amplifies magnetic resonance signals in response to pH. We confined Mn2+ within pH-sensitive calcium phosphate (CaP) nanoparticles comprising a poly(ethylene glycol) shell. At a low pH, such as in solid tumours, the CaP disintegrates and releases Mn2+ ions. Binding to proteins increases the relaxivity of Mn2+ and enhances the contrast. We show that these nanoparticles could rapidly and selectively brighten solid tumours, identify hypoxic regions within the tumour mass and detect invisible millimetre-sized metastatic tumours in the liver.