Research uses 3-D images to see cells

By Kristen Sackley

Cancer patients may wait for long periods of time for critical tests to show if their cancer has spread or if a surgery was successful at removing cancer cells.

Researchers at the University have created a new technology that may be able to be more accurate in a diagnosis with less invasive techniques.

Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Microscopy uses physics and mathematics in a new way to read information gained from a microscope. Previously blurry images can now be digitally re-imaged to become clear, said Paul Carney, a researcher on the project and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Dr. Stephen Boppart at Carle Foundation Hospital and professor of electrical and computer engineering, bioengineering and medicine, also helped develop this new way of using optical microscopy.

“When you focus light by a lens you pretty much always assume that what you need to look at is in focus,” Boppart said. “Blurry images also contain images that we should take advantage of and use.”

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    To get a 3-D picture of a large sample of these cells using current techniques, like computed tomography and X-ray imaging, the microscope lens would have to be focused up and down. Out-of-focus parts of the images were previously thrown away. Using the new microscopy technique, the lens focus can be left in a fixed position. This simplifies the instrumentation, Carney said.

    “What we’ve done is (allowed) us to keep all of the data that the instrument got, and not throw it out,” Carney said. “By analyzing the way the light interacts with the matter, it lets us compute the underlying 3-D structure.”

    The researchers, which also include postdoctoral research associate, Tyler Ralston, and scientist Daniel Marks, have been working on developing the new microscopy technology for about two years, and are still working on ways to implement it into the real world.

    Ralston, the only student member of the research team, said he carried a lot of the workload, but it was a great opportunity to have control over an important project.

    “Working directly with my advising professors and a research scientist was a great opportunity for me to progress rapidly as a researcher, building a repertoire of theoretical and experimental expertise,” Ralston said.

    Boppart is also the director of the Mills Breast Cancer Institute, which is a partnership between Carle Foundation Hospital, Carle Clinic Association and the University, and has recently been using the new microscopy technology in his lab. He has used it to look at cancer cells of patients and see whether a surgery has actually removed all of the cells in an area.

    The researchers hope to see the new microscopy implemented in other hospitals within the next year and to find companies that will license the already patented science and market it to other health care systems.

    Boppart and Carney both agree this could change the way health care works.

    Carney said the team is currently working with ways to use the new microscopy technique with endoscopic probes, fiber optic wire-like tubes used to see inside the body, and eliminate some invasive surgeries and get fast results.

    “We believe we can do that same type of imaging right at the bedside,” Boppart said. “We can provide real-time feedback to the surgeon or physician about what’s going on with that tissue.”

    Ralston agreed and said that the new microscopy research opens up a lot of different possibilities for the medical community.

    “Patients and doctors need as much help as they can get in the clinic,” he said. “This particular project has been especially exciting because there is a great potential to impact a wide range of application-specific studies.”

    Boppart said that the reason the development of the new microscopy was a success is because of the partnership created between the different disciplines that the scientists brought to the project.

    He said it’s a “nice example of theoretical research, experimental research and applied research.”