UK Research & Innovation Future Leader Fellowship awarded to develop a compact super-resolution microscopy technology

The principal investigator of the Nanoscale Microscopy Group, Dr Izzy Jayasinghe, has been awarded a UKRI Future Leader Fellowship to build a new portable imaging technology which will allow scientists, medical doctors, conservationists and industrial parties to visualise the smallest building blocks of any biological sample from any location.

The UK and other governments are currently making urgent investments into understanding the role of molecules and cells in some of the biggest challenges of today’s society which include the effects of climate change on food sources and lifestyle effects on major human diseases and ageing. Despite this urgency, we remain unable to visualise the relevant genes, proteins and cellular components in their natural environments or the geographical locations of the problem. Frustratingly, the technology for visualising such minute structures exists. It is called ‘super-resolution microscopy’ and we even hailed its invention with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014. However, it has remained beyond the reach of field scientists and clinicians because it has always relied upon specialist skill for its operations and expensive and bulky equipment for its implementation.

In this fellowship, we will use a radically new approach to make super-resolution microscopy portable, cheap and easy to use. We will harness a novel chemical reaction called ‘Expansion Microscopy’ which we have refined and mastered over the last three years (read more about our recent paper about it here). This method allows one to physically inflate a desired feature of a sample, for example a patient biopsy or a small organism, by over a 1000-fold in volume. We will build a set of chemical, biological and physical tools which allows this method to reveal minute cellular details in tissues or organism which were previously too small to be visualised with traditional, laboratory-based, optical microscopes. These developments will be carried out with a view to assemble a miniature super-resolution microscope that is both affordable and portable beyond the laser lab.

Sea-urchin embryo
A fluorescence micrograph of a sea-urchin embryo which will be the subject of a field-trial for the portable super-resolution microscopy technology, currently under development. Image credit: Dr Andrea Gaion

To refine and ensure that this device delivers this claimed imaging capability, we will carry out case studies in partnership with experts whose samples are collected outside of the academic laboratory (in Phase II). They include a field scientist who will use it to examine young sea urchins in the UK coast, doctors and sports scientists who will screen for the fine structure of needle biopsies taken in the clinic from human patients, and a member of the Worms in Space programme who will use it to remotely study the effect ‘zero gravity’ on the ageing of microscopic worms sent between earth and the international space station.

Our expectation is that by making super-resolution available beyond the laboratory, one unlocks the benefits of rapid visualisation of sub-cellular structures which underpin the life processes and pathology at a new spacial scale. For field scientists, it would accelerate research programmes; sample collection and high-end microscopic analyses would no longer be mutually exclusive processes. In the clinic, this could unlock faster decision-making.

The fellowship allows us to work more closely with two important industrial partners who have supported us over the last few years, Badrilla Ltd and Cairn Research.

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