An ambitious EU-funded project is working on new tools to identify the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease much earlier, and to help researchers develop new treatments for cancer. The project aims to rewrite the rules when it comes to how accurate infra-red nanoscopes can be.
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The ‘Label free nanoscopy using infrared’ (LANIR) project set out to develop a novel imaging tool, called the infrared nanoscope (IRN), which will give scientists and researchers a much better understanding of biological processes at the sub-cellular level.
The new imaging technology being trialled by the LANIR team could open the door to early Alzheimer’s diagnoses and the development of new treatments for cancer. The implications of this project are significant, especially given Europe’s ageing population.
Alzheimer’s disease affects about 800 000 new patients in Europe every year. It is the most common form of dementia and a major cause of dependency - people relying on care - amongst the elderly and infirmed. There is currently no cure.
Breaking the barrier
The LANIR project is working on ground-breaking nanoscopic technology which will achieve two things. First, it will allow scientists to study in much greater detail than ever before - at the nanoscopic level - by overcoming the diffraction limit of infrared (IR) radiation. This was previously deemed impossible due to the inherent absorption of IR radiation by materials at intensities sufficiently high to achieve high resolution.
“This limited how far scientists could go,” explains project coordinator Dr Tofail Syed of the University of Limerick in Ireland. “The best resolution you could expect from a commercial table-top IR microscope would be between 50 and 100 micrometres, and you would have to go to a special facility to go to something like 4 micrometres.”
By overcoming this limitation, the LANIR team is keen to enable scientists to see further than ever before, helping them to identify tiny chemical changes that could signal the onset of Alzheimer’s.
The second point is that the technology uses a chemical-imaging technique that maps the spatial distribution of certain chemical transitions. This technique traces the chemical fingerprint of a variety of biological and non-biological materials, meaning that no chemical labelling is required for molecular identification (in other words, the technology is label-free). This is highly advantageous, especially in detecting small and subtle chemical changes that can have potentially severe consequences - for example, in the chemical change in the amyloid protein structure that causes Alzheimer’s.
This means scientists will be able to see chemical changes in situ and in real time, at high resolution. “Alzheimer’s disease, for example, results in plaque formation in nerves, and with this technology we will be able to see very small chemical changes typical in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease,” explains Dr Syed.
The LANIR project got under way in April 2012, and is due for completion in 2015. It is expected that, by then, four prototypes of these nanoscopes will have been developed: two at the University of Limerick, Ireland; one at the IIT in Genoa, Italy, and one at the UPB in Bucharest, Romania. Each of these nanoscopes will achieve between 70 and 250 nm lateral resolution on a routine basis on a portable, table-top nanoscope.
Of course, these four prototypes will be available for use at the participating universities, according to Dr Syed. “We also hope to have the commercial prototype, which will be developed in collaboration with a nanoscope manufacturer, NT-MDT Ltd, ready for market one year after the programme.”
It is reasonable to expect that, if properly supported, this technique will significantly advance European knowledge of biological and nanoscale objects, and lead to significant breakthroughs in preventative health care.