New microscope technologies light up vital medical research
New photonic microscopes, systems and techniques developed within the EU-backed PHOQUS project are shining a light on vital medical research bringing life sciences and physics closer together. Findings will have direct applications in medicine, especially for better disease diagnosis.
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Life scientists can tell us about the structure and function of living systems by studying what is happening down to the molecular and cellular level. But more complex biological systems call for even greater detail, which is pushing the limits of today’s microscopes. Better optics and technology are needed to light the way for ever-deeper biomolecular investigations, literally.
Photonic (light-based) microscopic imaging has become a major research tool in both life and medical sciences, revealing the secret life of cells and their internal workings (organelles), tissues and even whole organisms on timescales from milliseconds to days. And the EU-funded project PHOQUS is making sure Europe stays at the forefront of concurrent developments in the life sciences and photonics. It has developed new imaging equipment and techniques to investigate even the minutest biological processes.
State-of-the-art equipment and systems have been built or customised under PHOQUS’ guidance, including microscopes (SERS, STED), and optical tweezers and systems (TIRF) for a range of close-up microbiological investigations, from monitoring drug metabolism in tissue samples and studying tumour growth in zebrafish, to early chick embryo development.
Other project innovations include ultrasound-based methods for high-resolution images and measurements of gut tissue structure and workings. Photometric methods have also been developed and implemented to measure blood oxygenation, primary metabolites and blood flow, and to assess cardiac issues in both healthy and at-risk people.
“These developments and more reported and published by our team are driving fundamental research around the world,” says Kees Weijer of Dundee University, who heads PHOQUS’ international training network. The initiative was funded by the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie funded programme. “The project will undoubtedly have direct applications in medicine, especially diagnosis, and in the pharmaceutical industry now and in the longer term.”
New light on the subject
The new imaging technologies developed by the project take advantage of the Nobel-prizewinning discovery in 2008 of fluorescent proteins, which, combined with the ability to genetically manipulate cells switching on (or off) disease-causing characteristics, for instance means scientists can more easily track detailed biomolecular changes taking place in real time.
“We still need more sensitive detection instruments (microscopes) to take advantage of ‘fluorescent imaging’ developments,” says Weijer. “Which is why investment in increasingly complex and costly equipment is critical to helping Europe stay ahead in cross-disciplinary research like this.”
Just as important is the need for many more trained researchers who are able to work at the interface between these traditional disciplines. And this is where PHOQUS has really proven itself, says Weijer.
The highly technical equipment produces complex data that needs to be analysed and compared using heavy-duty computing power and skills. Programmes like PHOQUS are helping to recruit and train the next generation of top scientists in cross-disciplinary research which brings the life sciences, medicine and physics closer together, leading to new developments in microscopy and discoveries about the inner-workings of cells and living tissue.
“The research team we put together didn’t start out with this exact skill set, so we had to build the knowledge quickly during the course of four-year project,” explains Weijer.
The project has recruited and trained 13 early-stage researchers as part of an innovative doctoral training programme which makes use of Dundee University’s world-class facilities and reputation in life sciences and photonics, as well as the project’s 20 associated partners, from both industry and academia, in Finland, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Switzerland and elsewhere in the UK.