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The Promise of Microscopy

Peter L. Slavin and David F. Torchiana consider advances in microscopy and how they might lead to new treatments.

FALL 2013
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In the late-sixteenth century, Dutch eyeglass makers discovered that affixing lenses at opposite ends of a tube and then looking through them would greatly magnify an object, providing astonishing detail unseen by the naked eye. During the next 100 years, scientists using the same basic technique were introduced to a fascinating new world in miniature, in which a tiny droplet of water teemed with life, a single blood cell came into focus, and bacteria and yeast and sperm revealed themselves as distinct entities. The invention of the microscope launched the field of cell biology and started the journey toward understanding the complex processes of life.

Microscopes have continued to be improved and refined, making it possible to see smaller and smaller objects. Stains and dyes have provided better definition of cell structures. Different light sources have improved illumination. But even as microscopes grew more precise and powerful, they eventually bumped up against the laws of physics, and the degree of smallness that could be seen under a microscope was limited by the length of the light wave reflecting off the object.

In the 1930s, however, another powerful tool emerged. The electron microscope used shorter wavelengths that allowed scientists to view even smaller objects with remarkable resolution. Over the years, cameras, digital techniques and high-definition 3-D computer imaging were added to microscopes to further augment and enrich the images they produced. We’ve now reached a point at which microscopy could enable us to get pictures of disease forming, spreading and responding—or not—to treatment, all in vivid color.

In this issue of Proto, we examine today’s super-resolution microscopes, which have brought imaging to a whole new level. They can reveal stunning close-ups of molecules interacting within a living cell, synapses firing as neurons communicate with other neurons, and changes in proteins—for example, within T-cells as the immune response is triggered.

These latest technologies are so new that they’re just now beginning to address complex clinical questions. It will be interesting to follow the progress in this field in the years ahead—and to see what the next big development in microscopy might reveal. We certainly will be watching closely.

Peter L. Slavin, M.D.
Massachusetts General Hospital
David F. Torchiana, M.D.
CEO and Chairman
Massachusetts General Physicians

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