New Ultrasound Tech That Uses Sound Can View the Inside of Living Cells

New Ultrasound Tech That Uses Sound Can View Inside of Living Cells
PHOTOGRAPH: France-biotech | Photo shows image of cells obtained through conventional device.

A breakthrough technique that utilizes sound rather than light to view the inside parts of live cells offers huge potential for stem-cell transplantation and cancer diagnosis. It promises to rival the optical super-resolution microscope that can now peer into the nanoworld, an innovation that won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Developed by researchers from the University of Nottingham, the new nanoscale ultrasound technique makes use of shorter-than-optical wavelengths of sound. The Nottingham researchers were able to use smaller wavelengths and view smaller things while getting to higher resolutions without undue damage to the cell biology.

Unlike light, sound does away with a high-energy payload. The new kind of sub-optical phonon (sound) imaging provides invaluable information about the structure, mechanical properties and behavior of individual living cells at a scale not achieved before. The findings of the researchers from the Optics and Photonics group of the Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Scientific Tools Then & Now

In the old days, scientists used tools that had some limitations. When examining the pathways of molecules within living cells (for purposes such as tracking proteins as they aggregate in diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and so on) they were held back by conventional microscopy that did not give a better resolution than half the wavelength of light.

Advances in recent years led to the modern-day optical microscope that could study living cells in the tiniest molecular detail. For biological specimens, the wavelength cannot go smaller than that of blue light because the energy carried on photons of light in the ultraviolet (and shorter wavelengths) is so high it can destroy the bonds that hold biological molecules together, damaging the cells.

Improving Conventional Tools

Optical super-resolution imaging for biological studies also comes with another downside — the fluorescent dyes it uses are oftentimes toxic and requires huge amounts of light and time to observe and reconstruct an image. This is damaging to cells.

With the new ultrasound technology, scientists can more efficiently see inside cells that someday might be put back into the body, such as with stem-cell transplantation. This was noted by Professor Matt Clark, who contributed to the study. It marks a first for Nottingham,  currently being the only place in the world that has demonstrated such capability, he added.

In other news, scientific innovations such as the portable, super-high-resolution 3-D imaging well-suited for applications ranging from healthcare to forensics and the consumer industry have been developed.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences researchers combined a clever physical interface with computer-vision algorithms to develop a simple, portable imaging system that can achieve resolutions previously possible only with large and expensive laboratory equipment.


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