NEWARK, Del. — Researchers at the University of Delaware are now in possession of a $700,000 microscope that is among the most powerful and useful of its class in the nation.
The Zeiss LSM780 is so powerful it can measure a single molecule within a cell. Researchers believe it will help UD make significant contributions in the biomedical field during the next decade. Fewer than 20 of this type of microscope are in use in the United States.
UD scientists will use the instrument, known as a confocal microscope, in their study of diseases of the eye, bone and blood, among other tissues.
For instance, researchers are using the microscope to study how breast cancer cells form to help determine which drug treatments would be most effective.
By next year, more than 200 researchers will routinely be using the microscope for their projects, said Kirk Czymmek, an associate professor in UD’s Department of Biological Sciences and director of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute Bio-Imaging Center.
The microscopes used for biomedical purposes work in concert with computers. They capture each individual pixel separately in perfect focus, while the computer reconstructs a large image from the pixels. Researchers analyze the images on the computer monitors to figure out how individual parts of cells operate.
While previous-generation microscopes provided insight into the biomedical field by zooming in on cells in various tissues, they were limited by their inability to give researchers a big-picture glimpse of the tissues they were studying. The latest Zeiss microscope not only has a powerful zoom-in, but also provides sharper images than the older models. With breast cancer, for example, the microscope can enlarge cancer cells to more easily study them while maintaining the fine detail of the cells.
“The magnifying power is the same but the details can be seen much greater,” Czymmek said. “This new instrument is about eight to 10 times more sensitive than the old instrument. It’s kind of like looking out in space. By eye, you don’t see many of the stars but if you have an instrument that’s more sensitive, there’s much more information that can be seen.”
It also is equipped with the ability to reconstruct the smaller images into a panoramic image. In other words, researchers can see both the forest and the trees.
“With the other microscope you’re looking so close at something that it’s easy to lose perspective,” Czymmek said. “But when we take images on this microscope you can look at the entire structure and we are better able to evaluate what we’re looking at.”
UD purchased the microscope with support from a $500,000 grant from the National Center for Research Resources, a division of the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health.
The instrument will also be used by researchers in other fields, such as chemical engineering and the environmental and industrial sciences.
“Microscopy has revolutionized our ability to delve into tissues and look into individual cells and really see what’s going on not just in healthy tissue but also in diseased models,” said James Fitzpatrick, a director at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. “This is one of the best available systems for making highly sensitive and dynamic measurements in living cells and tissues.”
With the microscopes, researchers, for the first time, can see ball-and-sockets on the outside of cells within the lens of an eye.
While another equally powerful microscope, the electron microscope, also had the power to view these cells, it was only able to do so upon the cells being killed and treated with chemicals. With the Zeiss LSM780, researchers can study living cells and can observe how cataracts form.
“Now we can get the images where we can see the structure in a cell that has not been treated with harsh chemicals,” said Melinda Duncan, a professor in UD’s Department of Biological Sciences, who along with Czymmek was instrumental in acquiring the grant money.
“It really allows us to be very competitive with the best biomedical research institutions in the world because we have access to such great technology. It also means that our peers think we’re doing things that are very important and need to be supported.”
Researchers say it may take years to capture the full potential of the microscope. But an immediate advantage is that the microscope is motorized, meaning it can take snapshots of various parts of cells in order to build a larger image.
“We collect multiple pieces of information simultaneously,” Czymmek said.
With cardiovascular diseases, researchers at UD are able to study how blood clots occur. Through the microscope, they can study in fine detail the physical parts of platelets — platelets are 2 to 3 microns in size, invisible to the human eye — to find out how they operate. They are using the microscope to study how arthritis-stricken tissue deteriorates and how cancer cells are able to survive and proliferate in the bone and brain.
“One of our researchers is studying why cancer that ends up in the bone is so incredibly painful,” Duncan said. “Once cancer moves to bone, the prognosis is very poor because it’s very hard to treat there…We are trying to figure out how to make these patients’ lives more comfortable.”
“Virtually any human disease that has cells in it can be used with this technology,” Czymmek said.