New imaging technology peeks into living cells

Above, a 32-channel tuned amplifier array, or TAMP array. The device makes the new advance in medical imaging possible. (Credit: Purdue University )

High-speed spectroscopic imaging makes it possible to observe what’s going on inside living cells and to image large areas of tissue, even an entire organ.

The vibrational spectroscopic imaging technology could allow for the early detection of cancer and other diseases.

“For example, we will be able to image the esophagus or urinary bladder for diagnosis of tumors,” says Ji-Xin Cheng, a professor in Purdue University’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering and chemistry department.

“If you were to take one millisecond per pixel, then it would take 10 minutes to obtain an image, and that’s too slow to see what’s happening in cells. Now we can take a complete scan in two seconds.”

The technology represents a new way to use stimulated Raman scattering to perform microsecond-speed vibrational spectroscopic imaging, which can identify and track certain molecules by measuring their vibrational spectrum with a laser, a sort of spectral fingerprint.

Findings appear in the journal Light: Science & Application.

The imaging technique is “label-free,” meaning it does not require samples to be marked with dyes, making it appealing for diagnostic applications. Another advantage of the new system is that it can be combined with another technique called flow cytometry to look at a million cells per second.

“You can look at large numbers of cells from a patient’s blood sample to detect tumors, for example, and you can also look directly at organs with an endoscope,” says Cheng, scientific director of the Label-free Imaging lab in the Birck Nanotechnology Center.

“These capabilities will change how people use Raman spectroscopy for medicine. There are many organelles in each cell, and spectroscopy can tell us what’s in the organelles, which is information not available by other techniques.”

As a proof of concept, the researchers demonstrated the new system by observing how human cancer cells metabolize vitamin A and how medications are distributed in the skin.


The technology, which is about 1,000 times faster than a state-of-the-art commercial Raman microscope, is made possible with an electronic device developed at the university’s Jonathan Amy Facility for Chemical Instrumentation called a 32-channel tuned amplifier array, or TAMP array.

Two patents have been issued for the new technology.

Cheng says he found the idea for this imaging technology by teaching undergraduates how the human ear amplifies sound. Circuits in the TAMP device do the same thing for optical signals, he says.

Source: Purdue University