Two-Step Expansion and VR Technique Enlarges Tiny Microbes, Illuminating New Ways to Prevent and Treat Disease

Seattle, WA
06/12/2019

Innovation enables better visualization and interpretation of data from cell microscopy

A combined research team from Carnegie Mellon University and Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason is pairing a nanoscale imaging technique with virtual reality technology to create a method that allows researchers to “step inside” their biological data.

By combining the technique, called expansion microscopy, with virtual reality (VR), scientists will be able to enlarge, explore and analyze cell structures far beyond the capabilities of traditional light microscopy.

The development of these technologies, a two-step process funded at $200,000 through Grand Challenges, an initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will accelerate researchers’ understanding of infectious and autoimmune diseases and enhance their ability to develop disease diagnostics and prevention and treatment methods.

Yongxin Zhao, PhD, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon’s Mellon College of Science, has been developing the expansion microscopy technique to physically magnify a biopsy, allowing researchers to see fine details in biological samples with standard microscopes.

Zhao makes biopsy samples grow in size by chemically transforming them into water-soluble hydrogels. He then applies a treatment that loosens the tissues and allows them to expand more than 100 times in volume. The tissues and molecules within the sample can then be labeled, imaged and compiled into a complex set of data, to be used to study interactions among cells and their structures.

However, a limitation of the technology is that it extracts 2-3 orders of magnitudes more data than current techniques are able to interpret. To help solve that problem, the Gates Foundation grant pairs expansion microscopy with a virtual reality technique developed at the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason (BRI).  

Through VR technology developed specifically for the purpose, researchers will be able to see and manipulate the originally 2D expansion microscopy images in 3D, giving them a 360 degree view of tissue protein organizations and interactions.

“At BRI, we’ll prepare the live infectious and autoimmune disease samples,” said Caroline Stefani, PhD, senior postdoctoral research associate. “We’ll send those to Carnegie Mellon, where they will enlarge the samples and send images back to BRI to be viewed in VR.”

“This is the future of how scientists can handle complex data,” Zhao said. “It’s an immersive experience, just like you are sitting inside your data. You have the freedom to explore your data from every angle and every spot.”

The virtual reality technology was developed by Tom Skillman, BRI’s former director of research technology, who has since founded a VR company, Immersive Science.

“My role in this grant is to develop a software tool that will allow scientists studying disease a way to understand large amounts of data through a computational technique called ‘immersive science,’” Skillman said. “Bringing all that data into VR not only allows the scientist to see their 2D microscope images in full 3D, but to interact with the data, selecting channels, adjusting the views, colors and contrast, and grabbing and rotating the images to quickly identify key aspects of the image that are coupled back to the disease under study.”

The eventual goal is for the VR tool, called ExMicroVR™, to be shared on open platforms with other researchers along with expansion microscopy so that they too can view new details of disease processes and understand larger, more complex sets of data.

The system to convert expansion microscopy data into VR 3D images will be affordable and easily accessible to researchers and physicians in developing countries. It will also allow for up to six people to collaborate and view the same sample remotely at the same time.

For more information on the grant and Grand Challenges, an initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, visit the Grand Challenges page at www.gatesfoundation.org.

About Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason

Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason (BRI) is a world-renowned, non-profit research institute committed to advancing the science that will predict, prevent, reverse and cure diseases of the immune system. BRI researchers uniquely study the immune system in both health and disease, with the ultimate goal of achieving a healthy immune system for each individual. Diseases we study include type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s and colitis as well as allergies and cancer. BRI accelerates discovery through laboratory breakthroughs in immunology that can be translated to clinical therapies. A leader of collaborative initiatives such as the Immune Tolerance Network and Type 1 Diabetes TrialNet, BRI frequently partners with global research institutes, pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

Visit BenaroyaResearch.org or follow us on the Autoimmune Life blog, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn or Twitter.

About Carnegie Mellon University

Carnegie Mellon (cmu.edu) is a private, internationally ranked research university with programs in areas ranging from science, technology and business, to public policy, the humanities and the arts. More than 14,000 students in the university’s seven schools and colleges benefit from a small student-to-faculty ratio and an education characterized by its focus on creating and implementing solutions for real problems, interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation. 

Media Contacts                                                                                                                     

Christi Nichols
Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason
cnichols@benaroyaresearch.org / 206-342-6519

Jocelyn Duffy
Associate Dean for Communications  
Mellon College of Science, Carnegie Mellon University
jhduffy@andrew.cmu.edu / 412-268-9982

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