Dec 23, 2016 | By Julia

Live cell imaging is no longer the stuff of high-end hospitals and research labs. A powerful tool for studying cells, as well as how they respond to different treatments such as drugs or toxins, live cell imaging technology can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The prohibitive price of the tech has been an obstacle for scientists with limited funding, consequently holding back many cell researchers around the globe. But now, researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden have invented a new way to make the cutting edge technology affordable and easy to assemble yourself. All it takes is a smart phone, a few 3D printed parts, and some off-the-shelf electronics.

“Our idea was to make possible live imaging of cells for labs in developing countries,” said Johan Kreuger, a senior lecturer in the Department of Medical Cell Biology at Uppsala University.

"What we have done in this project isn't rocket science, but it shows you how 3D printing will transform the way scientists work around the world. 3D printing has the potential to give researchers with limited funding access to research methods that were previously too expensive," Kreuger explained.

Being able to conduct live imaging of cells is key for studying how they respond to different stimuli. Recording video of the cells is equally as important, as it lets researchers study cell behaviour over a longer period of time, allowing for much more detailed information than would be available from static images.

Published in the open access journal PLOS ONE, the Uppsala study involves upgrading old standard inverted microscopes that are readily abundant at most universities and hospitals. All the apparatus requires is a few 3D-printed components, store-bought electronics, and a smartphone. The study’s findings showed that the upgraded systems provide excellent cell culture conditions, and enable high-resolution imaging of real living cells.

“Using our concept, you can 3D print pieces to hold your phone in place, as well as a small incubator for the cells to grow in, which will warm them to a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius, the same temperature as the human body,” Kreuger explained. “You’ll need some readily available consumer electronics, but for anyone with a little bit of technical know-how, it’s very straightforward.”

The DIY set-up can’t quite do everything that an expensive live-imaging microscope can, but it comes pretty close. Kreuger notes that lots of smartphones come equipped with sophisticated cameras that are more than capable of capturing cells. The research team has also developed an app that allows time-lapse imaging directly from the phone, as well as temperature control.

The study shows that the self-assembled rig effectively achieves high-resolution imaging of living cells, while also providing excellent conditions for the cell culture. The apparatus even includes a built-in humidity module to ensure cell cultures retain the necessary moisture.

human kidney cells grown in a lab, taken at 400x with a smartphone attached to the team's rig

"The technology presented here can readily be adapted and modified according to the specific need of researchers, at a low cost. Indeed, in the future, it will be much more common that scientists create and modify their own research equipment, and this should greatly propel technology development," says Kreuger. And without getting too ahead of ourselves, it’s probably safe to bet that 3D printing will continue to play a key role in that development.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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