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 university said.
The research team, headed by Yen Ta-jen (嚴大任), 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 said.
It was the world’s first successful attempt at using metamaterials — artificial materials engineered to have properties that may not be found in nature — in bio-imaging, it added.
Intracellular imaging involves looking inside a cell and its structures to gather information about them. These different structures — called organelles — are colorless, making it hard to get images of their forms.
Because of this, intracellular imaging has until now been done by dyeing cells to help the imaging equipment lock onto a target, a time-consuming process that damages or kills living cells, Yen said.
Equipment does exist that can capture images while maintaining the cells’ integrity, but the equipment costs millions of New Taiwan dollars and the resolution delivered by these instruments is less than ideal, Yen added.
To get better resolution, Yen and his students Lai Yueh-chun (賴岳軍), Lee Hsin-cheng (李信成) and Chen Cheng-kuang (陳政光) fabricated metamaterials out of regular metal and endowed them with the ability to act as high-performance microscopes for 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.
In addition, it should be much less expensive than the current approaches or instruments. Chen said the team employed the lithography process — widely used in the semiconductor industry and an inexpensive process in Taiwan — to make their breakthrough metamaterials.
The study was published in Advanced Materials on June 19.