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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Countries
Countries
  Algeria
  Argentina
  Australia
  Austria
  Bangladesh
  Belarus
  Belgium
  Benin
  Bolivia
  Bosnia and Herzegovina
  Brazil
  Bulgaria
  Burkina Faso
  Cambodia
  Cameroon
  Canada
  Cape Verde
  Chile
  China
  Colombia
  Costa Rica
  Croatia
  Cyprus
  Czechia
  Denmark
  Ecuador
  Egypt
  Estonia
  Ethiopia
  Faroe Islands
  Finland
  France
  French Polynesia
  Georgia


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Published: 15 November 2017  
Related theme(s) and subtheme(s)
Health & life sciencesMedical research  |  Molecular biology
Human resources & mobilityMarie Curie Actions
Pure sciencesPhysics
Research policySeventh Framework Programme
Countries involved in the project described in the article
United Kingdom
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New microscope technologies light up vital medical research

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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.

Project details

  • Project acronym: PHOQUS
  • Participants: United Kingdom (Coordinator)
  • Project N°: 608133
  • Total costs: € 3 816 691
  • EU contribution: € 3 816 691
  • Duration: November 2013 to October 2017

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