Under the microscope

Scientists at the University of St. Andrewshave won a £750,000 grant from the EPSRC to develop a new ‘super’ microscope to be used for cutting-edge research into Alzheimers disease and cancer.


The Biophotonics work station will be the first instrument of its kind to offer a wide range of functions for cell research in a single tool. It will allow scientists to image, sort, separate and punch holes into cells as small as 1/100th of a millimetre.


The work will have a crucial role to play in developing technology for the early diagnosis and treatment of range of illnesses.


The new development will draw together research at the University from leading academics including physicist Professor Wilson Sibbett, cancer researcher Professor Andrew Riches and Dr. Frank Gunn-Moore, a neurobiologist investigating how nerve cells are affected by neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimers.


Leading the project is Professor Kishan Dholakia, head of the Optical Trapping Group at the School of Physics and Astronomy, who is pioneering a number of cell- based research techniques based on light.


“We are very excited about this project. Standard microscopes can usually do one or two things but this biophotonics work station will offer the whole range of functions in a single tool,” he said.


“It will combine the latest advances in optics with some really cutting edge biology and ultimately could help save lives.”


The multi-disciplinary aspect of the work station has safety benefits too.


“Since all of the functions can be done in one room and on one system, the cell samples involved in Alzheimer’s disease or cancer don’t have to be moved; thus minimising the possibility of contamination and ensuring the stability of tissue,” explained Dr. Frank Gunn-Moore.


The work station, which will take two years to put together, will be built around a Nikon microscope and will use compact lasers. It’s likely to be the size of a 20 inch television but the researchers say that they could develop smaller versions depending on commercial interest.


“We own the intellectual property on this project and if the initial microscope is a success there is lots of potential to build bespoke microscopes for other research organisations or medical diagnostics companies,” Professor Dholakia said.