Biomedical Researchers Awarded $1 Million Keck Foundation Grant

Three UCI researchers receive funds to develop a nanoscale imaging microscope

Biomedical Engineering Professor Enrico Gratton, Ph.D., Research Associate Michelle Digman, Ph.D., and Developmental and Cell Biology Professor J. Lawrence Marsh, Ph.D., have been awarded a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to engineer a nanoscale imaging microscope capable of observing single-cell migration in vivo. Matching funds were also awarded by the UC Irvine Office of Research to support the establishment of the "W.M. Keck Nanoimaging Laboratory,” whose mission is to develop technologies that will revolutionize how protein dynamics are measured.

The nanoimaging microscope is specifically designed to probe fluctuations of protein numbers and their interactions in real space and time at the nanoscale inside live tissues.  The instrument will provide researchers with a detailed description of the dynamics of molecular associations at the nanoscale by viewing them directly in the cells of living organisms, which is important for understanding how protein complexes that are responsible for cell migration in tissues assemble and disassemble.

This technology will help gain insight into protein signaling mechanisms in the native intra- and extracellular environment. According to Digman, "The main advantage of this technology is that the laser beam can be positioned at any point in the cell. We can detect single molecular events while the cells are migrating and, with our fast feedback algorithm, we can maintain the focal position while at the same time ‘tracking’ the cell movement.”

Probing the molecular interactions at the nanoscale inside native tissue and capturing the exact point as tumor cells invade is considered the next frontier in fluorescence imaging and cancer research.  Developing this enabling technology will allow investigators studying many aspects of developmental processes to measure the dynamics of protein interactions that drive cellular behavior in living tissues during processes as diverse as wound repair, neuronal targeting, angiogenesis, metastasis and other processes.  

The researchers have developed the enabling technologies for imaging deep into tissues with the sensitivity necessary to detect single molecules in their own research activities. However, these technologies have not yet been put together in a single integrated platform and applied to cancer research.  Gratton said, “We are appreciative and enthusiastic that the W.M. Keck Foundation is willing to support our research, and are certain that many researchers will benefit from this development. “

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company.  The Foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering and undergraduate education.  The Foundation also maintains a Southern California Grant Program that provides support for the Los Angeles community, with a special emphasis on children and youth.  For more information, please visit

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