NIH Awards $1.9 Million for ‘Microtsunami’ Microscope

Sept. 17, 2019 - UC Irvine engineering researchers have received a $1.9 million, four-year grant from the National Institutes of Health for development of a noninvasive biophotonics technology platform. The proposed new optical tool will enable scientists to investigate the role of mechanical forces in normal tissue and disease development and has applications for high-throughput drug screening.

The project is a collaborative interdisciplinary science effort that is enabled by the expertise of the three researchers. Lead investigator Vasan Venugopalan, professor and chair of the chemical and biomolecular engineering department, has expertise in the application of pulsed laser microbeams and interferometry in biological systems. Biomedical engineering faculty Elliot Botvinick and Michelle Digman have extensive knowledge in mechanobiology, automated microscope development and quantitative imaging of cell metabolism.

“The inability of tissues to respond appropriately to their mechanical microenvironment has been implicated in chronic conditions and diseases such as hypertension, pulmonary fibrosis and cancer metastasis,” explained Venugopalan. “Our proposed platform promises to provide unprecedented high-throughput capabilities to measure and observe how biological tissues modify their behavior in response to mechanical cues under various conditions. This instrument will enable entirely new classes of fundamental studies as well as the screening of new therapeutic agents to treat diseases that involve a breakdown in the regulation of biological function to normal mechanical cues.”

The proposed platform utilizes pulsed-laser microbeam irradiation to apply impulsive stimuli to engineered cell and tissue cultures on the microscale – a process that researchers are calling a “microtsunami.” The use of microtsunamis is being integrated with advanced laser-scanning microscopy methods to observe and measure how these systems respond to stimuli to provide real-time 3D functional images of tissue structure, cellular morphology, signaling and cellular metabolism.

“We are enormously grateful for this NIH support,” said Venugopalan. “We have been pursuing this line of work for many years, cobbling together seed monies from various sources, including from the school of engineering. These sources enabled us to generate the necessary preliminary data and publish a breakthough paper in Nature Photonics to provide the necessary track record to secure NIH funding.”

The NIH Focused Technology Development Program supports projects that focus solely on development of technologies with the potential to enable acquisition of basic biomedical knowledge. 

– Lori Brandt




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