Biomedical engineer Melissa Knothe Tate is using semiconductor imaging technology and Google algorithms to map the human body in order to find better treatments for osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.
Knothe Tate, based at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has partnered with Google, the Cleveland Clinic, Brown and Stanford Universities, and German manufacturer Zeiss on the project. The advanced imaging technique was originally developed by Zeiss for quality control of semiconductor wafers, but it turns out to be just as good at imaging biological tissue. The multibeam scanning electron microscopy (mSEM) uses 61 electron beams in parallel, which means it captures 61 adjacent images of a tissue sample in the same amount of time that a conventional scanning electron microscope would capture just one image. This enables the researchers to gather unprecedented amounts of information on human joints, which is why Google algorithms are needed in order to analyze the data.
The imaging technology and computer models allow the researchers to zoom in and out just like in Google Maps, but instead of street view, they zoom in on bones and joints at the cellular level. Knothe Tate and her colleagues presented several papers on their work at the peer-reviewed Orthopedic Research Society meeting in Las Vegas in March. They wrote that the new imaging technology enables “unprecedented, seamless zooming in on tissue and organ scale specimens . . . to decipher cellular underpinnings of tissue health and disease.”
This microscopic view of the human body could lead to better therapies for diseases relating to aging. A thorough understanding of how movement and weight bearing affects the movement of molecules within joints, for example, could help doctors design better exercises for preventing and treating bone and joint degeneration. “Advanced research instrumentation provides a technological platform to answer the hardest, unanswered questions in science, opening up avenues for fundamental discoveries,” said Knothe Tate. The implications of the research, she continued, “will ultimately pave the way to engineer better human health and quality of life as we age.”