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Science Peers at Inner Life of Cells

New technologies should lead to precise 3-D research models, experts say

MONDAY, Nov. 6, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- A U.S. team has found a way to observe every vibration of a cell's membrane, a breakthrough that could someday enable them to create three-dimensional images of the inner workings of living cells.

Electron microscopy has long been used to look into cells. However, it can only be used on cells that are dehydrated, frozen, or treated in other ways. It can't be used to view the inner workings of living cells.

But now, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge are using a technique called quantitative phase imaging to look at the live cell. Using it to study cell membranes may improve understanding about many diseases, including sickle cell anemia, cancer and malaria.

But the MIT scientists say that studying cell membrane dynamics is just the first application for this technology. They want to use it to create images of the inner workings of cells, including how cells communicate with each other and what prompts them to turn cancerous.

"One of our goals is to create 3-D tomographic images of the internal structure of a cell. The beauty is that with this technique, you can study dynamical processes in living cells in real time," Michael Feld, professor of physics and director of the Spectroscopy Lab at MIT, said in a prepared statement.

Using quantitative phase imaging, scientists can observe living cells for as long as they want. The technology creates images with a resolution of 0.2 nanometers. For comparison, a red blood cell has a diameter of about 8,000 nanometers.

In an article expected to be published in the journal Physical Review Letters, the MIT scientists outline findings about cell membrane vibration that they made using quantitative phase imaging.

More information

The U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information has more about cells.

SOURCE: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, news release, Oct. 23, 2006
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