New Ultrasound Approach Used to Image Inside Living Cells

The University of Nottingham researchers recently developed a groundbreaking approach which instead of using light, uses sound to see inside live cells, with the possible utilization in stem-cell transplants as well as cancer diagnosis. This observation utilizes very high-frequency phonons, up to the THz region, using a Broadband terahertz ultrasonic transducer based on a laser-driven piezoelectric semiconductor superlattice.

This new nanoscale ultrasound approach adopts a shorter-than-optical wavelengths of sound and could possibly compete with the 2014 Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry, which was the optical super-resolution techniques. 

This unheard of sub-optical sound imaging provides priceless data regarding the structure, mechanical properties as well as behavior of single living cells at a scale that has not been achieved to date. Behind this discovery were the University’s Analysts from the Optics & Photonics group in the Faculty of Engineering.

Professor Matt Clark said: “People are most familiar with ultrasound as a way of looking inside the body - in the simplest terms we’ve engineered it to the point where it can look inside an individual cell. Nottingham is currently the only place in the world with this capability.”

Professor Clark went on to add: “A great thing is that, like ultrasound on the body, ultrasound in the cells causes no damage and requires no toxic chemicals to work. Because of this, we see inside cells that one day might be put back into the body, for instance, as stem-cell transplants.”

The breakthrough was also recently published in the paper ‘High-resolution 3D imaging of living cells with sub-optical wavelength phonons’ in the journal Scientific Reports.This breakthrough will allow researchers to observe and measure the mechanical and structural properties of biochemical processes in record detail.   

Dr. Emma Smith, Cancer Research UK’s science information manager said: “Advances in imaging technology like this could help scientists unravel the inner workings of cancer cells to a greater level of precision and detail than is currently possible. More research will help show whether this new technology can help figure out what processes go wrong in cancer cells and help drive forward research into better ways to treat the disease in the future.”

For the full report on the research see the Scientific Reports’ journal:

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