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Taiwan makes breakthrough in stem cell imaging

2012/08/29 16:13:49

Taipei, Aug. 29 (CNA) A National Tsing Hua University research team has made a breakthrough in bio-imaging technology that will enable researchers to study stem cells more closely and cheaply.

The research team, headed by Yen Ta-jen, a professor of materials science and engineering at the university, has developed "metamaterials" that can be used for intracellular imaging without damaging or killing living cells, the university announced Monday.

It was the world's first successful attempt to use metamaterials -- artificial materials engineered to have properties that may not be found in nature -- in bio-imaging, the university said.

"Intracellular" imaging involves looking inside a cell and its different structures and gathering information about them. But these different structures -- called organelles -- are colorless, making it hard to get images of their forms.

As a result, intracellular imaging has been done up to now by dyeing cells to help the imaging equipment lock on a target, Yen said, but that time-consuming process had resulted in damaging or killing living cells.

Equipment does exist that can get images while maintaining the cells' integrity, but the process is expensive, with the equipment costing millions of Taiwan dollars, and the resolution delivered by these instruments has been less than ideal, Yen said.

To get better resolution, Yen and his students Lai Yueh-chun, Lee Hsin-cheng and Chen Cheng-kuang fabricated metamaterials out of regular metal and endowed them with the ability to act as high-performance microscopes in observing cells.

What they ended up with can mirror every intracellular element of a stem cell, just as mirrors enable people to see themselves, Chen said.

Lai said the team believes this new microscopic imaging technique can be developed into a much simpler optical configuration, with better penetration, for whole-cell imaging applications in the future.

And it should be much less expensive than currently used approaches or instruments. Chen said the team used the lithography process widely used in the semiconductor industry to make their breakthrough metamaterials, a process that is not expensive in Taiwan.

The study was published in the influential journal Advanced Materials on June 19, 2012.

(By Huang Yen-yu and Elizabeth Hsu)