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New Imaging Technology Could Reveal Cellular Mysteries

By BiotechDaily International staff writers
Posted on 21 May 2013
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Researchers have fused two biologic imaging technologies, creating a new approach to determine how healthy cells turn malignant.

“Let’s say you have a large population of cells,” said Dr. Corey Neu, an assistant professor in Purdue University’s (West Lafayette, IN, USA) Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering. “Just one of them might metastasize or proliferate, forming a cancerous tumor. We need to understand what it is that gives rise to that one bad cell.”

This new development makes it possible to simultaneously evaluate the mechanical and biochemical characteristics of cells, which could provide new clues into disease processes, according to biomedical engineering postdoctoral fellow Charilaos Mousoulis. Being able to study a cell’s internal mechanisms in precise detail would in all probably provide insights into the physical and biochemical responses to its environment. The technology, which combines an atomic force microscope and nuclear magnetic resonance system (MRI), could help researchers study individual cancer cells, for example, to uncover mechanisms leading up to cancer metastasis for research and diagnostics.

The prototype’s capabilities were demonstrated by taking nuclear magnetic resonance spectra of hydrogen atoms in water. Findings represent a proof of concept of the technology and were published in a research paper that appeared online April 11, 2013, in the journal Applied Physics Letters. “You could detect many different types of chemical elements, but in this case hydrogen is nice to detect because it’s abundant,” Dr. Neu said. “You could detect carbon, nitrogen and other elements to get more detailed information about specific biochemistry inside a cell.”

An atomic force microscope (AFM) uses a tiny vibrating probe called a cantilever to provide data about substances and surfaces on the scale of nanometers (billionths of a meter). Because the instrument enables scientists to visualize objects far smaller than possible using light microscopes, it could be suitable for studying molecules, cell membranes and other biologic structures.

However, the AFM does not provide information about the chemical and biologic properties of cells. Therefore, the researchers constructed a metal microcoil on the AFM cantilever. An electrical current is passed though the coil, causing it to exchange electromagnetic radiation with protons in molecules within the cell and inducing another current in the coil, which is detected.

The Purdue researchers performed “mechanobiology” experiments to find out how forces exerted on cells influence their behavior. In work focusing on osteoarthritis, their research includes the study of cartilage cells from the knee to determine how they interact with the complex matrix of structures and biochemistry between cells.

Future research might include studying cells in microfluidic chambers to assess how they respond to specific drugs and environmental changes. A US patent application has been filed for the concept.

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Image: Left: Green actin fibers create architecture of the cell. Right: With cytochalasin D added, actin fibers disband and reform in the nuclei (Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina).

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